Pay Your Way to Play

Topics: Ethics, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2018

Ethical Educator
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After varsity basketball tryouts, a parent complains her son didn’t make the team because he hadn’t participated in the assistant coach’s private off-season basketball club.

The coaches contend they make selections based on performance criteria during tryouts and not on off-season play.

The new athletic director discovers the majority of the varsity team participated in the assistant coach’s off-season club. He asks the superintendent how he should handle the parent’s complaint.

Meira Levinson: 

This case highlights how hard it can be to distinguish between appearance and reality in conflict-of-interest cases — and how the former can morph into the latter even if no one intends that to happen. 

It is quite possible the assistant and head coaches are acting ethically, as are the other parents who sign up their children for the off-season club. One way to get better at basketball, after all, is to practice hard in the off-season. By honing their skills and working out with a number of potential teammates — thereby potentially building their team communication skills — the students who take part in the off-season club may well perform better during tryouts than other aspiring varsity players do. 

Nonetheless, the parent’s complaint is legitimate. It certainly appears that families who spend money to join this off-season club give their children a leg-up in the varsity try-outs, and there’s no way under the current tryout system to prove otherwise. Furthermore, even if there is no intentional corruption on the coaches’ part, families who want their children to make the varsity team are necessarily incentivized to sign up for the club. The assistant coach thus benefits financially, whether or not he intends to do so.

This form of pay-to-play should not be allowed. The new athletic director should therefore direct the coaching team that the assistant coach should neither participate in tryouts nor select the varsity basketball team. Nor should the assistant coach communicate with the head coach before tryouts about potential players. Families and players should be informed about this policy, so then they can make independent decisions about whether to sign up for the off-season club, and all athletes can feel confident that team assignments are made on the basis of demonstrated performance during tryouts.

Maggie Lopez:

It would be most appropriate for the superintendent to direct the athletic director to talk to the school principal. Part of addressing this complaint should involve the principal, athletic director and coaches in a meeting to discuss the protocols and criteria used to choose team members. The specific allegation the parent has made that team member selection was based on club participation also should be discussed at this meeting. The coaches can provide information to the principal and athletic director regarding the reasons this particular student did not get selected for the team and why so many team members were club participants.

If, after meeting with the coaches, the athletic director and principal believe proper protocols were followed, it would be prudent for them to set up a meeting with the parent and coaches and review the selection process and clarify why her son was not chosen for the team. If after meeting with the coaches the athletic director and principal believe protocols were not properly followed, then steps will need to address the situation and the followup conference with the parent must focus on how to rectify the selection outcome for her son. The superintendent should be kept informed throughout this process. 

Sarah Jerome:

The off-season basketball club must be managed by someone who is not in charge of team selections. Parents or other coaches who are not responsible for the team selection can run the club, but only if the club allows all students to participate. The athletic director can institute this policy to become effective immediately for all sports.

Regarding the parent's complaint, the athletic director and the coach can meet with the parent to explain the new policy to be implemented henceforth. They also may create a temporary remedy for the students who did not make the team this year by adding a "no cut" team that allows everyone playing time.

Shelley Berman:

If playing with the off-season club gives students an advantage in securing a spot on the varsity team, it is both a conflict of interest for the assistant coach and an unfair and biased tryout process. If athletes aspiring to make the varsity team perceive that their chances are improved by membership in the assistant coach’s off-season club, they are more likely to join his club rather than another individual’s or organization’s club. Because it is likely the assistant coach derives revenue from the off-season club, he has a financial interest in having athletes he coaches in the off-season secure a place on the varsity team. Even if he doesn’t derive revenue, it creates the appearance of a biased tryout process.

Although the coaches may contend that their judgments are based on specific performance criteria, these judgments and the resulting consequential decisions are, in part, subjective assessments of particular abilities and skills. While the coaches may strive to make fair and unbiased judgments, the situation presents, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.

However, making a decision about this situation is more complicated than simply viewing it as a conflict of interest or an appearance of one. The complexity results from a number of what may be considered mitigating factors. Many coaches are devoted to their sport and participate in off-season clubs or camps, viewing them as a way to grow the sport and strengthen the skills of those who choose to participate. In fact, a coach could argue that participation in the club results in significant improvement in an athlete’s abilities and this improvement is the primary reason so many from the club make the varsity team. In some cases, particularly in small communities, the individual coach may be one of only a few persons with significant expertise in coaching that sport. Although some individuals are full-time employees or summer employees of athletic clubs for the sport for which they are also a high school coach, for most the income derived from off-season activities, or even from a high school coaching position, is often a marginal supplement to a full-time salary elsewhere. In terms of looking for guidance from the state’s athletic association, in many states, there is no rule against this kind of activity in the state association’s handbook for coaches or in school board policy.

The superintendent should suggest that the athletic director review school board policy, as well as the rules and guidelines of the state’s athletic association, with regard to conflict of interest. The AD should then meet with the coaches to better understand the overall tryout process as well as their perspectives on this particular student-athlete. Because the head coach of a sport is responsible for the final decision as to who makes the team and who doesn’t, the AD needs to determine the degree of influence the assistant coach has on the final decisions of the head coach. The AD should review current and historical data on the tryout process and the degree to which athletes who participated in clubs other than the assistant coach’s, or who didn’t participate in a club at all, were selected for the varsity team. He should also review the evaluation used by the coaches during the tryout process to discern its thoroughness, the specificity of skills included, and the degree to which it relied upon subjective assessments. As part of that review, he should compare the coaches' evaluation of the student who did not make the team against those who did and then meet with the parent to hear the parent’s perspective.

The AD needs to avoid undermining the authority of the coaches by substituting his judgment of the athlete’s abilities for theirs. Otherwise, he will repeatedly be asked to review the judgment of coaches when tryout issues arise in the future. Instead, the AD should focus on whether there was clear bias or conflict of interest in the tryout process. Given the ambiguity in such situations, the AD is likely to have difficulty identifying sufficient evidence to overturn the decision of the coaches or to dismiss the assistant coach. However, it is important to find a long-term solution to the appearance or substance of conflict of interest.

To pursue a long-term solution, the AD needs to meet with all coaches and discuss the issue of conflict of interest. He needs to work with them to set up tryout processes that are as free from bias as possible, even if that means some coaches must give up their off-season activities, restructure the off-season programs to exclude prospective members of their own teams, or abstain from participation in the tryout process. The solution may also involve a review of tryout evaluation forms and processes to ensure objectivity. Finally, the pursuit of fairness may mean that those who have significant conflicts of interest are no longer able to coach a high school team. The tryout process is an emotionally difficult one for coaches and athletes alike and needs to be viewed as thorough and unbiased by athletes and their parents. 

The Ethical Educator panel consists of:

  • Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; 
  • Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill. and AASA past president
  • Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries
  • Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma.

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