Disciplining our athletes

Last year we were basking in the afterglow of the Sugar Bowl victory, sure another successful season on the playing year was on the horizon. Trouble, however, was brewing off the field. At year end, we were distressed that more than a dozen football players had been charged with criminal activities. Although some charges were dismissed, the series of incidents spoke of a pattern that cast a disquieting shadow over the university.

While many of the communications from alumni to me have been supportive--"Are you holding up?"--much criticism has been directed at the athletic and university administration. Correctly so. And while some point out that athlete misbehavior is not unique to this institution, the stories reporting upon that trend too often cite Virginia Tech as an example. Clearly, we have a problem.

The 500 young women and men who represent Virginia Tech on its 21 intercollegiate teams become role models for others. I still believe that athletic competition builds character, a sense of teamwork, and an understanding of self. As a result, I believe that Virginia Tech athletes should exhibit and be held to a high standard of sportsmanship and moral values.

We at Virginia Tech have reasons to be proud of our student athletes. Each year I hear success stories. Consider the Washington brothers, Todd and T.J., who willingly volunteer as tutors in local schools. Or Shawn Scales, who evaded the drug culture surrounding his youth to become not only a fine athlete, but a dedicated student. Or students like Jim Druckenmiller, Will Furrer, Shane Miles, or Jeff Holland who finished their last year of eligibility as graduate students. Dedicated student-athletes like these really are the core of our program. I know they also were humiliated by the actions of a few.

It is important to note that few of these young men now (at the time of this writing) charged with crimes have had an opportunity to prove innocence or guilt in court. But a police charge brings with it a high probability of proof and a belief by law enforcement that laws were broken. Regardless of the final adjudication, even the appearance of impropriety by Virginia Tech athletes impugns the integrity of the entire program.

Under Athletic Director Dave Braine and with the full participation of Coach Frank Beamer, we have concluded several months of review and have set up a code of concrete practices. Now there will be automatic sanctions for violations of the law. Players charged with felonies will be automatically suspended until charges are resolved. If a player is convicted or pleads guilty to a felony charge, the athlete is automatically dismissed from the team. Misdemeanor charges also result in automatic review, but sanctions are not automatic. Depending on the nature of the crime, a player can be warned, suspended, or dismissed from the team. The athletic director, not the coach, will have initial and ultimate responsibility for enforcement. While I do not believe our coaches have acted improperly, there is an inherent conflict of interest for disciplinary enforcement.

We also will redouble efforts to recruit the kinds of players who can succeed in a college environment, both on the field and off. It is difficult for coaches to judge the character and background of an athlete while enmeshed in the highly competitive recruiting process. But we will send a message to schools, recruits, and families that we value citizenship--that our values are more important to us than short-term athletic success.

Lastly, it is helpful to remember the tremendous pressures on young people to succeed--sometimes in front of national television audiences. Even the most mature students sometimes have difficulties juggling athletic schedules, studies, and the college social scene. Our plan calls for several intervention and support strategies such as peer mentoring programs, increased staffing in the student-life office, expanded education on the responsibilities of student athletes, and special programs on alcohol and drug abuse. The latter is very important because we know that alcohol is the source of many problems throughout all of higher education.

We do not want to relive the events of last year. I trust that our actions send a message that athletes must behave as responsible citizens or they will not have the privilege of representing Virginia Tech.

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