Leadership & Governance

The Buck Stops Near: Presidents Are Seldom Among Sports Scandals' Casualties

Joel Auerbach, Getty Images

Donna E. Shalala, president of the U. of Miami, must deal with allegations that, if true, would pose a sports scandal of huge proportions.
August 18, 2011

The annals of major college sports scandals are littered with the damaged careers of coaches and athletics directors, but surprisingly few presidents lose their jobs in connection with NCAA infractions cases. While it may be cold comfort for Donna E. Shalala, who as president of the University of Miami is dealing with some of the most serious allegations in the history of college sports, Ms. Shalala's odds of surviving the scandal are pretty good, if recent history is any indicator.

Of the 29 presidents whose institutions were placed on probation by the NCAA in the last five years, 15 are still in place, and the remainder either resigned for reasons with no apparent connection to the sanctions or moved on to institutions of comparable or greater prestige, a Chronicle analysis has found.

But the Miami case may well be in a class of its own, raising questions about how much a college president should be insulated from an athletics fallout. The now-public allegations of a longtime donor, who has been incarcerated for a $930 million Ponzi scheme, suggest the university turned a blind eye as he showered dozens of football players with improper benefits, including the purchase of prostitutes' services and at least one abortion.

As with E. Gordon Gee, imperiled by a football scandal at Ohio State University in recent months, Ms. Shalala is clearly a president on the hot seat. If the allegations are true, the Miami president's only defenses would appear to be that she was either unaware of eight years of flagrant NCAA rule-breaking or simply decided not to act. Neither excuse bodes well. (Ms. Shalala declined a request for an interview.)

Miami's woes come at a time when university presidents are being pressed to take a more active role in the oversight of athletics. During an NCAA retreat last week, some 50 Division I chancellors and presidents called for the adoption of tougher academic standards for players.

On Wednesday, the NCAA's president, Mark A. Emmert, took the unusual step of issuing a statement about the Miami allegations, citing the presidents' push for reforms.

"If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports," he said.

But in this proposed era of reform, what should we expect presidents to know about enormous athletics enterprises that have traditionally operated largely independent of their institutions? James C. Garland, a former president of Miami University, in Ohio, said it's impractical for college presidents to know about every rogue booster or every fancy car a star linebacker has mysteriously acquired. The important thing is what the president does once he or she finds out, even if it means firing a big-time coach or athletic director, he said.

"There may be a public expectation presidents like Shalala or Gee know about things at that level, but I don't think that's a realistic expectation," said Mr. Garland, author of Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America's Public Universities. "What the public has a right to expect is that the president of the university deals with it responsibly and quickly, and acts in a way which may irritate fans but which is consistent with the values of the institution."

The expectations about presidential oversight of athletics, however, have risen in the last decade, said Bruce L. Jaffee, a former faculty athletics representative at Indiana University at Bloomington, who served on the Bloomington Faculty Council athletics committee for 21 years. At big-time football and basketball schools in particular, athletics is now more than ever a valuable conduit to the donor base and a key piece of an institution's brand, so it stands to reason that the president would get more involved in the inner workings of sports, said Mr. Jaffee, an emeritus professor of business economics and public policy.

"They know a lot more details in terms of what's going on in athletics than they do in the business school and the law school, because it is the front porch of so many universities," Mr. Jaffee said.

But critics who are calling for presidents to be more accountable for sports scandals might be careful what they wish for. If presidents fear any infractions case could end their own careers, there could be unintended consequences, said Mark Jones, who worked on the NCAA enforcement staff for 18 years.

"It's natural to believe that if you're held directly accountable for something, you may well pay more attention to it," said Mr. Jones, co-chair of the Collegiate Sports Practice at Ice Miller LLP.

"It becomes a question of how healthy that is in the long run. Do you want your presidents micromanaging athletics? Do you want the president becoming the 'Super AD'? That would be one of the possible downsides to" presidential firings becoming the norm, he said. "But obviously there are instances where there has not been enough administrative oversight from the top."

And in those instances, college presidents may not make it through the scandal with their jobs intact. Robert J. Wickenheiser, who was president of St. Bonaventure University, resigned in 2003 over his role in allowing an ineligible men's basketball player to compete.

The physical toll a major sports-related disgrace can take on a president was evidenced at Southern Methodist University, which in 1987 became the first and only institution to ever receive the NCAA's "death penalty," canceling the entire season that year and crippling the program for years to come. L. Donald Shields retired as the university's president in 1986, saying his diabetic condition was aggravated by the stress of the controversy.

More recently, in 2005, Elizabeth (Betsy) Hoffman resigned as president of the University of Colorado, citing a desire to defuse controversy over a football recruiting scandal.

Todd Turner, who was the University of Washington's athletic director from 2004 to 2008, said the flavor of modern-day sports scandals reflects a new reality in major college athletics. The people charged with running institutions of higher education have ceded control of sports to the donors and television networks who pay their bills, and in so doing they've lost their leverage to uphold the values of the universities they're hired to protect, said Mr. Turner, founder and president of Collegiate Sports Associates, an executive search and consulting firm.

"If presidents are guilty of anything­—along with AD's and board members—they're guilty of giving up ownership of the enterprise they are accountable for," he said. "And that's where they get into difficulty."