Louisville Basketball and a Culture of Sports

By Richard Nelson

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October 26, 2015

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In the last week the airwaves have been replete with stories and commentaries on the bombshell revelation concerning allegations about The University of Louisville basketball’s less-than-honorable recruiting tactics. The claims center around an assistant coach providing strippers and sex for current players and potential recruits on their visit to the derby city. What initially seemed like more smoke than flame has turned into a full-blown wildfire that is sweeping across the nation. ESPN devoted almost an entire day to the allegations, and everyone saw Katina Powell—the woman behind all the allegations—on every major news outlet. Various journalists, sports writers, and columnists have weighed in on the controversy. 

One of the central points being drawn from the situation is the implication that young women are primarily objects of sexual contemplation or conquest. Young women are being traipsed around as the hope for securing the prize of a verbal commitment from from top-flight recruits. While this idea is true of more than the University of Louisville, it is also true that this university has a unique problem not germane to other athletic programs: two head coaches with a history of philandering and disrespecting of women. 

Both Rick Pitino and Bobby Petrino have a sordid history of extramarital affairs. Both men have had their shame exposed in rather stunning situations. Pitino was involved in an extortion attempt from Karen Sypher, the woman he had the affair with. Bobby Petrino was exposed because of a motorcycle wreck with his mistress. Athletic Director Tom Zurich rehired Bobby Petrino after this affair was brought to light, and brought with it a storm cloud of controversy on the program. Both have expressed heartfelt sorrow for their mistakes and we should be obliged to believe them. But the scandal in Minardi Hall falls in the lap of a failed institutional culture. For example, when the head coaches of your pillar programs are men with checkered opposite-sex relationships, it should come as no surprise when an employee serving under one of them provides services to recruits that disrespect women. No evidence shows that Rick Pitino knew of what was happening, he has vehemently expressed his lack of knowledge, and we should believe so until proven otherwise. But that is not the end of the story.

The situation also shows something crucial to leadership, both on the court and in the public square: character matters. Contrition may absolve a man of his nagging conscience. Contrition may absolve a man of wrongdoing in the court of public opinion. Contrition may even prevent a man from serious consequences to his actions. But contrition does not immediately bring with it honorable leadership. Humility is the road of leadership, and to be sure contrition is an aspect of leadership. But the character of a leader shines brightest in the one’s who follow him. When you have men who follow a leader in the footsteps of disrespect, you have to wonder where they learned such traits. 

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