With one high-profile recruit in and out of the doghouse, and another already gone for good, fans of the Arizona Wildcats men's basketball team are understandably anxious about this season's fortunes. Shedding talent for no good reason is not generally a recipe for success in the intensely competitive world of high-end college basketball.
But in this case, "good reason" can be found in the concept of addition by subtraction, and the simple truth that no player is more important than the integrity of his team.
For the most part, the details of the Wildcats' growing pains are being kept within the family, but it seems safe to summarize them in this way: Two of their teenage freshmen apparently continued to act like children, despite making the leap to the adult situation of college. Appropriately, head coach Sean Miller has drawn a bright line on the court upon which all of his players' toes must rest.
It's hard to tell how rare or common the courage of Mr. Miller's conviction may be. Lute Olson certainly had it, as he laid down the law repeatedly with some of Arizona's best players over the years. It'd be nice if all coaches and programs emphasized character foremost, but a glance at the sports headlines on any given day shows that is not the case.
The Penn State University molestation mess really lays it on the table. Even in the squeakiest of clean programs, led by the saintliest of coaching figureheads, character was so lacking that monstrous crimes were overlooked and covered up while an untold number of children's lives were fractured forever.
Ironically, those who were complicit in the institutional failure at Penn State clearly thought they were acting in the best interests of the football program and the school. But instead of making sound moral choices that would have upheld their image, an alarming number of people made a series of morally bankrupt decisions that ended up permanently besmirching the institution's good name.
Moreover, these days, it often seems that the more heinous the crime, the less likely it is to be addressed in a morally defensible way. In this overly recorded world of sexting, YouTwit, Faceporn and whatever cyber-tattling device is next on the horizon, embarrassing behavior has a way of catching up to people—especially famous ones—yet it still seems that the darker the deed, the deeper the secret.
This dynamic is particular to molestation even more than it is to big-time sports. At Penn State, no one could believe that the kindly old man they'd known for years, or decades, was raping 10-year-old boys in the locker room. Even in the face of eyewitness accounts, people couldn't bring themselves to speak the truth aloud—beyond a tight inner circle, anyway—let alone intervene to stop what was happening.
That's how alleged serial molester Jerry Sandusky was able to maintain his prestige and access to the hallowed football program, which in turn played a huge role in enabling him to continue damaging children's lives with his criminal compulsion. That's how Catholic priests and overly friendly uncles are enabled to do the same, and it's a big reason why molestation is still rampant today, despite a profound evolution in the past century in the way in which it's perceived and prosecuted. Estimates vary, but approximately one in four girls, and one in six boys, are sexually abused.
I was one in six, but I was fortunate to be rebellious enough to stop the abuse before it went far. Few victims can say that. Even fewer are able to speak out in a way that leads to proper intervention. As an adult, I wonder how many other children were victimized because I did not have the courage at the time to tell anyone what had happened.
I hope the principals in the Penn State quagmire are pondering that question. Children can be forgiven for not yet possessing the depth of perspective necessary to make the right choice. For adults, no such patience is merited.
None of this is meant to equate the crimes of Sandusky with the relatively minor behavioral challenges faced by Arizona's freshmen. Nevertheless, the institutional reactions to the two situations are definitely part of the same conversation.
An adult should never sacrifice the welfare of a child to the sanctity of an institution, be it a team, school, church, family or marriage. And, in the example that Sean Miller has set, a coach should prioritize the growth of his young charges as human beings, not just players. One hopes that the Wildcats' remaining problem child responds with the realization that being a man of character is not so difficult after all.