Representing the Majority: Promotion of Integrity by the PAC-12’s Arizona Wildcats and Washington State Cougars

If you follow college sports, over the past week, you’ve arguably had your fill of stories involving integrity in the NCAA.

On August 9 and 10, 2011, NCAA President Marc Emmert called collegiate presidents and NCAA leaders to Indianapolis to specifically discuss methods by which the association can fortify integrity.

Less than one week after Emmert’s summit on integrity concluded in Indianapolis, a jailhouse confession expose shook the collegiate sports fan base and left many questioning whether integrity actually exists in the NCAA.

While the allegations made by a man currently serving a 20-year sentence in jail resulting from his involvement in a $930 million Ponzi scheme, undoubtedly led many to scream for NCAA reform, the stories told from behind bars by Nevin Shapiro relate to allegations involving an incredibly minor number of NCAA student-athletes.  This is demonstrated by the fact that the University of Miami is only investigating the eligibility of fifteen current student-athletes at the heels of Shapiro’s allegations.  The insignificance of Shapiro’s allegations in terms of their demonstration that NCAA student-athletes lack integrity is further demonstrated by the fact that there are 120 student-athletes currently on the football and men’s basketball rosters at the University of Miami.  Hence, Shapiro’s allegations arguably only allow for the questioning of the integrity of 12.5 percent of the student-athletes in these two sports at the University of Miami.  That percentage is even further decimated when you consider the entire populus of student-athletes at the University of  Miami versus the fifteen who are being investigated as a result of the felon’s allegations.

Thus, while the allegations made by Shapiro are indeed serious and should prompt conversation over how integrity can be strengthened in some NCAA programs and within some NCAA student-athletes, sensationalized stories like the one involving the University of Miami by no means demonstrate that the NCAA is void of integrity.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that most major media outlets do not publicize acts of integrity exercised by NCAA programs and their student-athletes.  Yet, absent the vast media coverage of their positive acts that emerges when scandals break elsewhere, many NCAA programs exercise integrity daily through their student-athletes and athletic departments.  The daily actions and programming adopted by two Pac-12 member institutions are demonstrative of the widespread existence of integrity in the NCAA.

Both Washington State University and the University of Arizona pride themselves on the integrity of their respective student-athletes and athletics departments.

Natasha Ostopovich, a senior at Washington State University, left her hometown of Sydenham, Ontario, Canada to attend college in a different country on a rowing scholarship.  Ostopovich found integrity in the Washington State University athletics department as a high school recruit.  During the period in which she was being recruited for various NCAA programs, Ostopovich was nursing a back injury.  Ultimately, Ostopovich found that Washington State University’s rowing coaches “had the best answers and advice in terms of how to deal with the injury and move forward.  I knew I would be in good hands at Washington State University as a student-athlete.”

Ostopovich’s assumptions about the integrity she’d find at Washington State University were correct.  Throughout her time as a student-athlete, Ostopovich has witnessed the promotion of integrity by the Washington State University athletics department not only in the care of its student-athletes, but also in its promotion of academic excellence and community service.

With respect to academic excellence and integrity, Ostopovich noted that the Washington State University athletics department provides its student-athletes with “access to all of the tools necessary to ensure that [student-athletes] have a successful [academic] year.”  Additionally, Ostopovich is quick to point out that at Washington State University, academics are promoted as a priority for student-athletes.  Ostopovich explains that the athletics department “wants every student-athlete to strive to obtain a grade point average higher than what is required to maintain their eligibility.  They want us to embrace being a student-athlete, instead of just being an athlete.”

Through her role as president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee at Washington State University, Ostopovich is greatly familiar with the community involvement of Washington State’s student-athletes.  Although student-athletes are not required by the athletics department to participate in community service activities, Ostopovich estimates that at least 80 percent of the school’s student-athletes participate in community service activities.  These activities address a broad range of needs in the Washington State community.  Student-athletes serve as reading buddies to local elementary school students.  They meet up with local Special Olympians for weekly bowling practices in preparation for a tournament between Special Olympians and Washington State student-athletes.  The university’s student-athletes visit frequently with a local senior home’s residents and even rent busses to bring the center’s residents to games.

Like Washington State University, the University of Arizona’s athletics department is composed of leaders and student-athletes committed to upholding the value of integrity daily.

Becky Bell, an Associate Director of Athletics at the University of Arizona has served in her position of director of the C.A.T.S. Life Skills Program for the last 15 years.  Given her lengthy tenure with one of the most recognized athletics departments in the nation, Bell has heard many debates over the integrity of the NCAA over the years.  “Bad news sells.  Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people want to read about.  98 to 99 percent of the kids are great kids,though,” said Bell.

Bell is quick to point out how her campus represents the 98 to 99 percent of student-athletes who are “great kids.”  ” The University of Arizona is proud to have had four NCAA women of the year.  This award represents integrity, because it looks at academics, athletics, character, and sportsmanship.  We are the only school in the country to have had four winners.”  Soon, the University of Arizona may be able to add to that number, as former Arizona swimmer Annie Chandler has been named as a finalist for the distinction.

Bell also recognizes the role of an athletics-department in promoting integrity.  She notes that while most NCAA institutions have one student-athlete leadership group, the University of Arizona has three:  Peer Athletic Leaders (a peer mentoring group assisting freshmen transition into college), the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and a program Bell created called STEP UP.

STEP UP is a “bystander intervention program.  The program helps students learn how to help out in problematic situations by teaching them what they can do as a Wildcat to step up, intervene and help the situation,” according to Bell.  Topics covered in the program, which has been adopted by more than 100 colleges, universities and organizations, include:  academics, alcohol and alcohol poisoning, anger, depression, discrimination, disordered eating, gambling,  hazing, relationship abuse and sexual assault.

The STEP UP program promotes integrity amongst student-athletes by teaching them how to apply the value of integrity in dealing with difficult situations.  Bell explains that the STEP UP program is not about “pointing fingers telling [the student-athletes] what not to do.  It’s about telling them what choices to make.  It’s telling them to understand the big picture:  to ask why things are happening, and to give them strategies to deal with them.  The more aware that a student-athlete is about these things, and the greater skill set they have to deal with these issues, will allow us to see more integrity.”

Bell’s level-headed approach to promoting integrity amongst NCAA student-athletes and athletics departments is not only seen in her creation of the STEP UP program.  It is also seen in her realization that the media’s general interest is not in those student-athletes embodying integrity.  “The majority of student-athletes want to create the kind of community we all want to be a part of.  However, we’ll always have those headlines [about programs and student-athletes lacking integrity].  The focus, unfortunately, is on those who have made poor choices.”

It’s time to shift the focus away from the miniscule number of student-athletes whose actions do not embody integrity.  Rather, it’s time to focus attention and to devote headlines to the large majority of student-athletes and athletics departments who work tirelessly to promote integrity.

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