In the wake of the suspension of three of his teammates on the University of Michigan football team, Patrick Omameh didn’t waste a breath in discussing the responsibilities that he, as a student-athlete, holds.
“Everybody understands what the situation is and understands what the expectations are of us,” the senior offensive lineman said, two days after Michigan announced the suspensions of cornerback J.T. Floyd, punter Will Hagerup, and linebacker Brandin Hawthorne from the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against South Carolina. “We have to keep that understanding going forward, especially with the young guys who are going to remain in the program.”
For many college athletic programs, those expectations are on paper, in the form of a student-athlete code of conduct. It’s a blanket missive that sets guidelines for a student-athlete in regards to areas such as academic standards, interactions with the media, institutional and NCAA rules against gambling, social media usage, alcohol consumption, and illegal drug use.
It’s not a separate missive from a college or university’s student code of conduct, but one that holds student-athletes to certain standards that are definitive and in writing.
“At the end of the day, you’re a student within an educational institution,” said Lesley Irvine, associate athletics director of sports administration and senior women’s administrator at Bowling Green. “Athletes have to maintain a certain level of setting a standard of good behavior. They are much more visible, and you can see that from sport to sport. You can drill that down even further and say, some of the revenue-generating sports’ athletes are at an even higher profile.”
Dan Lebowitz is the executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society, a Boston-based think tank that examines sociological issues in the realm of athletics, and believes the creation, implementation, and enforcement of a written code of conduct is vital for the culture of college athletics.
“Not only do they provide guidelines, but they’re sort of a leadership mantle of how coaches will look at their teams and look at the social responsibility of a team to that community,” Lebowitz said. “Sports is not much different than other realms, like the corporate realm. In many respects, you’re wearing a particular brand and representing that brand.”
Lebowitz estimates that a majority of Division I institutions across the country have some sort of written code of conduct or policy for student-athletes. It’s a far cry from when coaches set the rules for their team — when discipline seemingly meant either running stairs after practices or a significant suspension.
Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz said that when it came to players who violated team or school rules, he did not consider the athlete who violated those rules but the scope of the violation.
“I never dismissed a player without giving them a path to get back,” said Holtz, who coached college and professional football for more than 40 years and who is now a college football analyst for ESPN. “I said, ‘I tried to get you to conform to these three rules, and I can’t live with this any longer. But if you do this, this, this, and this, you can come back next year. You will have the right to come back.’ ”
Holtz had three rules for the players on his team — the same rules, he said, that he applied to his children: Do the right thing. Do everything the best you can. Show people you care.
“If you follow those three rules, you don’t have problems,” Holtz said. “But I think in the long run, all football teams have to have a standard.”
In black & white
Ohio State, Bowling Green, and Toledo each publish their codes of conduct or student-athlete handbooks online, as do other major Division I institutions. Of the 14 Big Ten schools, 13 have their student-athlete handbooks or codes of conduct available on their athletic Web sites.
A Michigan spokesperson said in an email to The Blade that Michigan does not have a separate code of conduct for its student-athletes, but instead follows the university’s student code of conduct, and that there are separate policies that cover alcohol, drug testing, and social media usage. Michigan’s Web site also has a page of compliance guidelines for its student-athletes.
All 13 Mid-American Conference schools have student-athlete handbooks, codes of conduct, or athletic department and team policies available online.
“It aids in transparency, and it allows you to communicate with your student-athletes,” Irvine said. “It’s one good example to take a look at, and it’s very important to have such a document available.”
Ohio State’s student-athlete code of conduct outlines 15 provisions, including a prohibition against hazing or initiation and an athlete’s requirement to consent to the athletic department’s mandatory drug testing program. It also has four points that relate to law-enforcement violations, including a stipulation that if an athlete is arrested, he or she is immediately suspended until the facts of an incident are reviewed by the athletic department.
Bowling Green’s student-athlete handbook includes a chapter that specifically issues the code of conduct, as well as the responsibility to not only adhere to the student-athlete code of conduct but also to the university’s academic code of conduct.
Toledo’s 45-page student-athlete handbook includes a seven-point code of ethics for its student-athletes regarding social behavior, legal obligations, hazing, sexual harassment, academic dishonesty, and gambling.
The University of Maine’s student athlete code of conduct outlines a points system that determines the severity of violations, including stalking, tampering with fire and safety equipment, falsifying records, and operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.
If a student-athlete accrues five to 10 points, he or she is suspended for up to 15 percent of competition dates. If a student-athlete accrues 15 points or the equivalent of three major five-point violations, he or she will lose NCAA eligibility and athletic scholarship funding, but has the opportunity for a hearing with athletic administrators.
“It’s something that continues to evolve and something we continue to look at all the time,” Maine athletic director Steve Abbott said. “There are things that come up that aren’t addressed specifically, and every once in awhile, something comes up specifically that can be added to it, so there’s communication, in that respect.”
One of the more notable staples, though, of Maine’s student-athlete code of conduct — which is available as a PDF file on the NCAA’s Web site, or by simply doing an online search — is a clause that requires student-athletes to report a violation of the code of conduct that results in a legal citation, ticket or charge against the athlete within 24 hours after the violation.
“We want students to make themselves accountable for their actions,” Abbott said. “The implications are strictly followed in that code. If you don’t self-report within a points system, you’re given additional points for that violation, but in the two years I’ve been here, we’ve never had a situation where a student-athlete hasn’t self-reported.”
Does Abbott believe the document acts as a guideline or as a deterrent for Maine’s student-athletes?
“One of the things we talk about with student-athletes is decision-making,” Abbott said. “One of the good teaching points from that code? It makes them think about the decisions ahead of time. Having it written down and knowing that there are guidelines and consequences. And it’s a good aid in the decision-making process.”
A money machine
College athletics, however, isn’t solely about games, team-building, or impressing life lessons. It’s about sustaining a business and a brand. ESPN reported that Michigan was second in the nation in profit revenue ($61.6 million) in 2011-2012, behind Texas ($77.9 million).
In an interview with CBS in November, Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said the football program accounts for 75 percent of the athletic department’s $133 million budget, and that donations are “disproportionate” during football season.
“Athletics is a multimillion-dollar business,” Lebowitz said. “It becomes important that when you’re operating under a spotlight, you have to make sure there’s some adherence to a code of conduct, a social contract, or a pattern of how you would conduct yourself in representing that brand.”
A day after the announcement of his suspension for a violation of team rules, Floyd released a statement of apology, though he did not specify the reason for his punishment.
Both Michigan and Floyd’s explanation for the suspensions is left vague, arguably by design — in part, Lebowitz said, due to federal laws that protect a student’s privacy, and in part to the mere simplicity of the statement: The fact that less is more.
In the end, the difference between good and bad behavior comes down not only to a written system of checks and balances, but also to an individual’s personal choices that reflect upon an organization.
“I am 23 years old, and despite the successes I’ve had on and off the field, I made a very uncharacteristic and immature decision,” Floyd wrote.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.