On Rick Pitino and Ethical Leadership

It comes from the top down, and it’s either important to a head coach and his or her assistants – or it’s not. I am not talking about the “Will to Win,” or “Teamwork.” I am talking about ethical leadership.

Rick PitinoAt Louisville, and in regard to the sex parties and strip shows for players and recruits in the basketball program, ethical leadership had been non-existent. Rick Pitino is on the hot seat and that’s the way it should be. He is the head basketball coach and the leader and he has put the university in an embarrassing position. Pitino has been head coach since 2001. Pitino is in the Hall of Fame. Pitino’s team has gone to the Final Four twice during his reign, and to the tournament something like 12 times in 14 years. Nevertheless, Pitino is not a king, although he seems to have crowned himself.

And, as stupid, stupid, stupid as this unfolding scandal has become, the sex parties involved teenaged women and they were being paid by wire transfer through Andre McGee, Pitino’s director of basketball operations. Where was the money coming from? Who funded this mess? Was it the School of Medicine? The history department? Or was it ambitious alumni and university friends who were more invested in bragging rights than education?

In an age where finally, male athletes are being held accountable for acts of violence and harassment toward women, Pitino allowed his program to return to the 1950s and Mad Men.

Are you sticking with that?

For Rick Pitino’s part, he is passionately denying having a hint of these parties, even though they were thrown on campus. Pitino has already shoved McGee under the bus. McGee has been made Pitino’s scapegoat. McGee is out, and he should be out. However McGee is only the beginning.

I have spoken in front of hundreds of associations, companies and groups where bad ethics were in play. In virtually every case, somebody knew somebody, who knew that something was going on. If Rick Pitino wants to adamantly deny any personal knowledge that his recruits were being influenced by hookers and strippers, he can stick to that story. His job will be on the line no matter what he says. If he is caught in a lie, he will never coach on a college campus again.

Louisville President James Ramsey has pledged to investigate the scandal down to the smallest detail. He has the backing to do it. It may take weeks or even months but if there was something going on in the Louisville basketball program that directly implicates Pitino, the coach should admit it now.

Not surprisingly, other coaches have come to Pitino’s rescue. Their defense of Pitino is that “well, you can’t be everywhere.” They are right, but only to a point. A good leader will surround herself/himself with good people. In addition, that leader will create a structure of accountability and responsibility. Guys like McGee come along because the environment allows guys like McGee to thrive. McGee was allowed to operate without hindrance.

I may visit your school; buy me a hooker

The ethical questions must lead to the “why’s” of it all. I grow weary of the justification that “every other program is doing one thing or the other, so we should be doing it too.” It is just not the case. There are many programs that strive to do things in the right manner. There are many fine coaches who teach values.

“Influences” at Louisville found the opportunity to recruit and retain athletes in this manner because no one and no ethical system had been put in place in the basketball program to stop it.

If winning is contingent on turning the recruiting process into a house of prostitution, something has gone terribly wrong. This isn’t just an NCAA issue; it strikes at the very core of why those people who are outside of collegiate athletics are so critical of what transpires within the collegiate ranks.

Yes, sports is a big business, but Louisville is also an institution of higher learning. Someone within the basketball program needed to acknowledge that. Pitino was wrong; plain and simple and with no excuses. If the university wants to show him the door, I would not stand in their way.

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