The Machiavellian State of College Sports

In the eyes of Machiavelli, in order to be successful and maintain one’s power within the political world, one must not take ethics into account during their decision making. Machiavelli claims that although being perceived as a virtuous leader is crucial to one’s success it is even more important that one maintains a strategic focus in decision making. In other words, Machiavelli illustrates that it is only useful for a leader to be virtuous and maintain their personal ethical values when it is going to benefit them “down the road.” Machiavelli supports the idea that making an unethical decision in order to maintain one’s perception and power is a necessity to being a successful leader. Unfortunately, this state of mind has lasted far beyond the days of Machiavelli and is present within the world of modern collegiate sports.

Former Penn State defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky (Middle) was convicted of multiple accounts of child molestation.

One of the most obvious examples of this Machiavellian point of view was the unfortunate Penn State scandal. This scandal rocked the college football world to its core, as one of the most beloved head coaches in college football history, Joe Paterno, was shown to have covered up the inexcusable acts of his colleague Jerry Sandusky. Was “Joe Pa” caught in the act of Machiavelli decision making? Yes, as horrifying as it may seem, Joe Paterno was following the decision making guidelines of one of the most successful political theorists. In order to maintain his “state” and virtuous reputation among his supporters, Paterno apparently felt that it was necessary to make some unethical decisions. Although his ethical decisions were eventually uncovered, and the program that he built left in ruins, it does not seem that this event has made an impact on the Machiavellian state of mind that leaders in collegiate sports have taken.

It is becoming increasingly evident that Machiavelli’s amoral point of view in decision making is playing a role in today’s world of sports. Whether it is in college athletics or in professional sports, coaches, administrators or even athletes are doing whatever is necessary to ensure that they maintain a virtuous reputation. Maintaining one’s personal ethical values is far less important than being considered a successful, virtuous leader. This is especially evident in a more recent college scandal dealing with the University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has always been considered one of the most prestigious and well-respected athletic programs in the country due to their “ethical standards.” In this case however, it was apparent that “things are not always as they seem.” In August, four Notre Dame football players were convicted of cheating in their classes and were suspended for a short period of time. Although, Notre Dame’s administration worked swiftly in handling this scandal, it is apparent that the ethical values of college athletes and university officials has considerably decreased in recent years. On the other hand, could it be the case that universities have become worse at maintaining a virtuous reputation and covering up scandals? Has this Machiavellian point of view always been present in college athletics and only now beginning to surface? It is hard to say whether or not this lack of ethical values has always persisted throughout college athletics, but it is clear that many universities, even the most prestigious, have used Machiavelli’s idea of amoral decision making in order to preserve their virtuous identity.

From the merchandise scandal at Ohio State to the illegal acceptance of benefits from a booster at the University of Miami, the current ethical state of college athletics is at a steady decline. Universities have become so concerned with winning and increasing profit margins, that they have cast aside their own personal values and morals for the sake of their programs success. One could argue that it may not be the universities that lack ethical decision making but rather the specific individuals who have committed the “crimes.” Bo Schembechler couldn’t have said it any better when he states, “Every coach, every executive, every leader: They all know right from wrong. Even those Enron guys. When someone uncovers a scandal in their company, I don’t think they can say, “I didn’t know that was going on.” They’re just saying they’re too dumb to do their job! And if they really are too dumb, then why are they getting paid millions of dollars to do it? They know what’s going on.” While this quote makes me proud to be a Wolverine, it is apparent that even Michigan has fallen subject to Machiavelli’s amoral decision making strategy. From a small incident such as putting Shane Morris back in the game when he was clearly injured to the Fab Five scandal, it is clear that ethics are not playing the role that they once did throughout the entire NCAA.

Personally, I find it sad that we can no longer rely on collegiate sports to serve as an indication of the ethical standards that exist throughout our society. I miss the days when athletes and institutions held themselves to higher standards; where it was not only about winning but about winning the right way. Unfortunately, today there are so many scandals throughout today’s college athletics, that one almost becomes “numb” to how severely unethical, or dare I say Machiavellian, the NCAA has become. Maintaining the prestigious brand of the NCAA or their university has become more important to universities than truly displaying ethical values. It is a sad, but also true reality that money and winning have become the “root” for Machiavellian decision making throughout college athletics. It sickens me to think that there are so many people that we consider to be virtuous leaders — whether this be in college athletics, politics, or even the entertainment industry — that are willing to make unethical decisions in order to maintain their current “state” and perception. I hope that one day the moral standards that once existed throughout college athletics will come back, but unfortunately I think that the current state of college athletics is at a “point of no return.”

3 thoughts on “The Machiavellian State of College Sports

  1. I agree with you that college sports has definitely strayed away from their ethics and become a Machiavellian institution. However, this should be of no surprise to anyone as many of the major sports leagues in the last two decades have shown signs of moving this way. Take the MLB for example. In the early 2000s the steroid scandal broke out. At this time many professional baseball players were unethically taking performance enhancing drugs in order to “benefit” their performance down the road and thus increase their “favoritism” among the fans. In addition, the NFL lately has shown signs of a Machiavellian institution. With the number of domestic violence charges that have been swept under the rug by commissioner Roger Godell, it seems as if the NFL was going about handling these charges in a unethical way, so as to produce less controversy and thus a more popular “League”. Thus it can come to none surprise that most of the major sports leagues have become increasingly Machiavellian over the years.


  2. You listed multiple examples that demonstrate the unethical and immorality of college athletics, which I appreciate greatly! Aside from the well known Sandusky scandal, I wasn’t aware of the other controversies. Now, with those scandals and cover-ups in mind, I thought of the possible “dirty hands” situations within these controversies. For example, what things did Joe Pa do after he gained knowledge of Sandusky’s wrongdoings to morally compensate his actions? What about after the scandal became public knowledge?


  3. Completely agree with everything being said. It is sad that this is what the collegiate world of sports is coming to. Even though there are many scandals and things that could potentially be bad that we hear about, there are some good things that come out of this. Although it is cheating (Notre Dame example), the institution is actually doing something about it. They were quick to fix the problem, I do not think they were trying to cover anything up. Also, when you mention NCAA and the institutions, I do not think it is fair to put all of the blame on them. Even though it gives both a bad rep., it is mainly on the program itself. But yes, when people think of Penn State, they think of “Joe Pa”.


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