More Caught Than Taught

Michael Metzger

March Madness is great fun. But it causes us to forget what’s been described as a “fundamentally immoral” relationship between academics and athletics. Moral solutions are required, but we seem to have also forgotten how to implement them.

The NCAA Basketball Tournament starts tomorrow. But several schools are banned this year, including SMU, Cal State Northridge, Missouri, Southern Miss, Pacific, and Louisville. SMU fabricated fake transcripts. Louisville had highly paid prostitutes recruit high school prospects.

The University of North Carolina is not on the list but probably should be. As far back as the 1990s. UNC athletes, mostly black, were steered to sham independent studies classes that never met. They were required only to turn in a paper that did not even have to be literate. They were given uniformly high grades.

Incredibly, the fraud was run out of what is now called the Department of African, African-American and Diaspora Studies. Julius Nyang’oro, the department head at that time, and Deborah Crowder, the department administrator, orchestrated the fake classes. Jan Boxill, the director of the Parr Center for Ethics, was an active participant.

Harry Watson, a history professor at UNC, describes this situation as “fundamentally immoral.” To fix it, Carol Folt was hired as chancellor in 2013. She launched a reform effort, hiring a chief integrity officer. But if an “ethics” director behaved unethically in the past, why does UNC assume an “integrity” officer will be an improvement?

In today’s university, ethics and integrity fall under the heading of moral philosophy. That sounds good, but moral philosophers suffer from “the rationalist delusion,” writes Jonathan Haidt. In The Righteous Mind, he describes this as the misguided assumption that “reasoning is our most noble attribute.” It’s evident in Plato and Kant. They believed the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes good behavior. Think right, act right.

“But if that were the case,” argues Haidt, “then moral philosophers—who think about ethical principles all day long—should be more virtuous than other people. Are they?”1 No. Studies reveal that the ability to reason well about ethical issues causes moral philosophers to rationalize immoral behavior—not to behave better.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of Philosophy at Cal Berkeley, used surveys to measure how often moral philosophers give to charity, vote, call their mothers, donate blood, donate organs, clean up after themselves at philosophy conferences, and respond to emails from students. According to Haidt, “Schwitzgebel still has yet to find a single measure on which moral philosophers behave better than other philosophers.”

Schwitzgebel then scrounged around missing-book lists from dozens of libraries and found that academic books on ethics, presumably borrowed by ethicists, are more likely to be stolen or just never returned than books in other areas of philosophy. “In other words, expertise in moral reasoning does not seem to improve moral behavior, and it might even make it worse. Skilled arguers . . . are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.”

There’s an old saying—behavior is more caught than taught. When colleges hire integrity officers to teach athletic departments integrity—but the teachers are not moral exemplars—why should we expect athletic departments to behave better? The system is perfectly designed to yield an immoral relationship between academics and athletics.

Haidt says fixing the system requires outsiders who are better able to design solutions aligned with the way “real human beings” behave. Human beings are unaware of between 70 and 90 percent of their behaviors. In institutions, outsiders act as contrarians “disconfirming the claims” of those who don’t behave in ways that align with what they profess to believe. It’s one way that colleges could introduce moral solutions to what has become a fundamentally immoral relationship between academics and athletics.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage, 2003), pp. 103-4.


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  1. It’s a great story about our corrupt human nature, Mike, but I doubt the solutions proposed the last paragraph. Should every manifestation of an institution (a particular university in the institution of higher ed) hire an outsider to not only monitor cheap grades but every other possible immoral behavior? That’s a never-ending sequence of moral police – and who’s watching them? A true outsider could report moral mis-behavior but like the press, merely expose it and let other powers investigate and impose sanctions. But where would it end? There’s no solution unless Jesus is Lord for every institutional player. Gad save us given that unlikelihood.

  2. Dave T: You might enjoy reading Stephen Sample’s “Contrarian Leadership.” The former President of the University of Southern California dramatically improved the school’s ranking by instituting an outside voice–a contrarian leader–on the board level.

    I understand your fear of a never-ending, infinite regression, of outsiders. Not necessary. Nor is it necessary for Jesus to be Lord of every individual at the table. Fallen people can do virtuous things. My sense is establishing all four offices of a roundtable, including the contrarian outsiders, is the most effective infrastructure that’s possible in this life.

  3. Marc:

    Yes. Merlin the wise sage. Dagonet the court jester. The noble knights (which populated most of the table), and King Arthur.

    btw, these four represent the four offices of Jesus. Sage is priest. Court jester is prophet. Knights acted as restorers (i.e., redeemer). King is, well, king!

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