Calling Audibles Part II: Seeing Right Through

It is better—much better—to have wisdom and knowledge than gold and silver.~Proverbs 16:16

Driving home from vacation this summer my husband John and I talked about him returning to work on the UNC football staff.  It had been just over a year since problems with the program came to light due to the NCAA investigation over improper benefits and academic fraud.

The football season that was behind us had been uniquely stressful and sad for many at UNC.  The coaches and players worked hard to do the right thing, to learn, and to come together as a team.  It was an uphill battle; and there was a lot to feel good about that the players and coaches had been able to accomplish in spite of and because of all that had happened.

The season ahead promised to be a time of recovery as we both anticipated and appreciated that many people were taking steps to address the problems unearthed in the investigation.

John specifically commented on how thankful he was to work at a university that he thought really wanted to get to the bottom of what went wrong.  He said how good it felt to respect the institution for which he works so hard.

Little did we know at the time that Head Coach Butch Davis would be fired just a few days later.   After the Chancellor fired Coach Davis, what had been a difficult situation became close to impossible.    And we are now coming toward the end of an even harder season than the one before.  Being blindsided just a few days before a season begins brought layers and layers of conflict and challenge to the people who work hard for this team and who have done nothing wrong.  It has been especially heartbreaking for those of us who love these players and respect the young men that they are becoming.

Chancellor Thorpe explained in the media and to me personally that he needed to fire Coach Davis to restore the integrity of UNC.  And I hear that word, “integrity,” getting used a lot by the powers that be at places like Penn State, Ohio State, and Miami.  They fire people, declare war on cheaters, chastise agents, and punish aberrant players in order to restore integrity.

Honestly I have gotten to a point where I am not sure what “integrity” means to anyone anymore—especially when it comes to how big-time football programs are created and how they function.

Let’s take a minute to remind ourselves of the technical definition of integrity.  Merriam-Webster defines it as:  “the firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”  It lists synonyms:  incorruptibility, soundness, virtue, and uprightness.   Integrity is the absence of division within ourselves and/or within an institution.  Integrity means being “complete” or “undivided.”

If we’re honest, do we really think that institutions of higher learning with big time football programs have really ever been “undivided”?  Can an institution be undivided if it has both a commitment to academic virtue and a money source that thrives most robustly from loyalties kindled by fanaticism?   Can a university truly be incorruptible if they are beholden to any one funding source that has the power to be an exception to even one standard or rule?  Is integrity possible when a university has an even perceived divide between athletics and academics, between the pursuit of “wisdom and knowledge” and the pursuit of “gold and silver”?

The quest to preserve and/or reclaim integrity at the schools with the most recent football unrest usually involves talk about tightening standards, closer regulation, and more consistent enforcement.  I have yet to hear anyone say that this quest to reclaim integrity will include universities coming clean about the complexities and ambiguities of being a “house divided.”

I, myself, believe football can be a part of a healthy university community. I also believe football can be a part of a community that has real integrity.   But for those dynamics to be a reality, those in power in the universities must come clean about the broader constellation of values that define their institutions instead of thinking the rest of us with be satisfied when they use an abused word like “integrity.”

Integrity means nothing if we are not clear on what values we are adhering to, if we don’t have clarity about the things we will not compromise on in our institutions of higher learning.  At UNC people talk a lot about “the Carolina Way.”   Before this fall I gathered that the Carolina Way had to do with being excellent in athletics without compromising high standards of character like honesty, respect, equity, hard work, and caring for others.

As the fall has unfolded it has been harder and harder for me to figure out how a commitment to restored integrity is what’s driving this and other universities with big time sports to fix their problems.  Communication has been poor.  Relationships have not been defined by mutual regard.  Hard work doesn’t count for much.  And the values of equity and honesty seem far away from the patterns at work in addressing problems.

The audible to call at this point in the imploding of big time football is not to call the same old play.  Don’t expect us to fall in line with this worn out word, “integrity,” that has frankly lost (or never had) its own integrity in the complicated and conflicted contours of big time sports.

The audible to call is to tell us—the coaches, their families, the players, the fans, the faculties, and the public that you will give us transparency.

Transparency is where substantive honesty, hard work, and caring for others comes.  I would not expect that transparency would reveal an undivided, untroubled reality.  Ambiguity is the nature of so much of human life.  The complexity and ambiguity are not going to go away with more rules, more regulations, more firings, more punishments.

The gift of transparency is the space it creates for us to find real integrity–the kind that comes from the ground up and not from the top down, the kind that comes from people and not from rhetoric.  Transparency will show us who we really are.  What redemption could come if  all of us could be honest with ourselves and each other about how this sport, that elicits such profound passion in so many, might actually find an untroubled home in our hearts.

11 thoughts on “Calling Audibles Part II: Seeing Right Through”

  1. Jon Heckerman says:

    As a longtime football fan though never much of a player, in spite of the fact that one of the first toys in my baby crib was a scarlet and grey football, I sorrow for your family and all caught up in the collegiate sport’s current troubles. As a serious student of history, I offer the following. In 1905 there was national conversation considering the abolition of college football not because of corruption but because so many young men were being killed or crippled. Several schools had already dropped the sport and more were considering such action. President Theodore Roosevelt loved most any physical activity and was a football fan. He called a White House Conference with the leaders of the three universities who then set the sport’s rules. That meeting resulted in changes which made the game both safer to play and more exciting to watch. Perhaps the current situation has overwhelmed the NCAA’s ability to police the sport and such a conference would be of value.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jon. Yes, I think we are at a point in this crisis where some meta-conversation could be more than useful. It is my fear that the NCAA has not only been overwhelmed by the policing they do, but that they have even been compromised by the massive amounts of money involved. The NCAA may be crumbling, too, under the weight of it all. Some people suggest that with the current shuffling of conferences power will soon be so concentrated in giant conferences that the NCAA will no longer have any currency in Division I football. I will be posting in a few days about some of the money issues in particular. Thanks for being a part of this conversation.

  2. Rhonda says:

    Wow, Marcia. I know you’re talking about football, but on the heels of a congregational meeting at my home church last night regarding a divide between the pastor & the Elders, the word “transparency” really struck me. I heard the word “integrity” tossed around last night too. Still processing my thoughts on the unfolding circumstances, but I also related to your thoughts on your “Carolina Way” & our supposed vision. Good food for thought to be sure.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you for your comments, Rhonda. I think you are right–this struggle in football is a mirror for broader cultural struggles in all sorts of institutions. I think of how much political rhetoric involves words like integrity, but not much transparency. I will be praying for your church community as you all find your way through the division.

  3. Frank says:

    Dear Marcia,

    I read both of your blogs about “Calling Audibles.” You are not only on target, you have hit the bullseye. Who and what can one believe anymore? As you point out so well we lack the integrity and transparency that our “ME” culture proclaims to advocate. You and John have my respect and appreciation for all that you have done for me and others by your teaching and your witness. I know that you are “forgetting the past and looking forward to what is ahead.”

    Your blog on “Digging, Dying, Dancing” is powerful.

    1. Marcia says:

      Dear Frank,
      Thank you for being a part of this conversation. Your affirmations mean a great deal to me and to John. I know you understand what it means to keep moving in hope even when you have a lot to grieve. You are a blessing! Hope you keep reading.

  4. Ann Carr says:

    Marcia – I would love for transparency to be the new defining concept for the 21st century – in churches, in politics, in sports – everywhere. I feel that integrity has lost its meaning. Tthe word is a big “buzz” and keeps being used, but there seems (to me) to be very little proof that it actually matters. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful and clearly reasoned writing on this and I look forward to more.

    1. Marcia says:

      Thank you, Ann Carr, for your comments and insights. I, too, pray that we are entering a new era of transparency. I hope you’ll keep reading and adding your wisdom to the conversation.

  5. Don says:

    Marcia, as a former college football coach I can understand many of your emotions. I have been conflicted often in trying to determine the meaning and value of “Integrity.” The mess of these past two football seasons has tried many of us to make sense of the word. I cannot imagine what you and your family have been through.

    I have had the good fortune to parent three wonderful children. My oldest son was fortunate enough to be coached by your husband. Midway through his first season under John’s tutelage, he converyed to me that he wanted to become the kind of man that John is. As his father, I have to admit to being a tad jealous. As a friend of your husband, I am honored to have had my son come under his positive influence and guidance. He has been unwavering in his commitment to doing things the right way.

    Integrity and transparency are certainly alive and well in your home.

    1. Marcia says:

      Dear Don,
      Thank you for reading and for your affirmations of the work John does. That means the world to both of us. What a privilege to coach your son and to know your family. You all are a shining example of what’s right in football. Here’s hoping and praying that integrity and transparency can find a new kind of traction in this business. I hope you’ll keep reading and adding your valuable insights. All our best to you all!

  6. Michol Beltran says:

    Reading this dialogue as my grandson contemplates joining a college program is very insightful. I would,love for him to play for a honorable coach as I see this role as a lifetime coach. Your writing is so insightul and frightening to read. The NCAA has always held great respect in my mind. Now I am fearful for my young grandson and the world he contemplates to join. But perhaps he will become a part of a solution. I pray this will come to pass. He is an amazing athlete but more importantly an amazing young man. I hope his future journey playing football in college will make a difference insomeone’s life. Certainly your writings and perspectives on dealing with truth and angry have given me insight. I thank you for your brave writings. You are so gifted. And yes the tragedies and sorrows in your life have woven great dialogues and gifts to the community. Thank you so much for your thoughts. I will continue to read your writings. As an old woman I believe I should have more wisdom. I have trully enjoyed and learned from your work. God bless you on your journey through life!

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