September 20, 2006

Culture Keeps Cornell’s Athletes Out of Trouble

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Most well-informed American citizens have heard of the Duke lacrosse scandal, in which three members of the men’s lacrosse team were arrested for allegedly raping a stripper. On June 5, the news wires lit up with a story that hit closer to home, as fans of Ivy League athletics read the news that the captain of the Harvard football team was arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. And most recently, violence, collegiate athletes and headlines collided when the backup punter on the Northern Colorado football team stabbed the starter in his kicking leg.

Somehow, Cornell student-athletes have remained safely on the sidelines when it comes to competing for negative press. According to administrators, coaches and student-athletes themselves, this pattern is by no means a matter of luck. Instead, these Cornellians point to the Red’s culture of accountability and proactive measures put in place by the administration as the central factors in producing student-athletes that reflect positively on their University.

“I believe, and hopefully not naively, that there is a culture or a tone here where our head coaches understand that we want to recruit the right type of individuals,” said Athletics Director Andy Noel. “We want to recruit dedicated team players, individuals with a strong work ethic who see the importance of the team working together as opposed to developing individual heroes. And there’s a team concept that says one’s behavior does not just impact that individual but their team, their athletics department, and their university.”

Chris Wlosinski, the assistant athletics director of student services and compliance, agreed that the character of recruits arriving on the East Hill plays a role in cultivating a community of student-athletes that do not engage in illegal behavior.

“Ivy League athletics is just different,” Wlosinski said. “We really do get a good student with good moral character. … I’m constantly amazed [by them]. It’s a special group of kids.”

As the administrator in charge of facilitating all the educational programs that the NCAA requires of the department, Wlosinski works closely with those student-athletes every day. Besides consulting with them to determine speakers and activities that would be useful for student-athletes, she works with many of the Red’s representatives on a one-to-one basis to help them balance their commitments.

Wlosinski devises an annual “menu” of programs dealing with alcohol, drugs, sexual responsibility and nutritional issues from which coaches select presentations they feel would be useful to their teams’ members. The topics and speakers are selected in a dialogue between coaches and team captains, as well as between Wlosinski and the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC), an organization that describes itself as “the voice of the Cornell University student-athlete,” and is made up of two to three representatives from each varsity squad.

Senior Ugo Ihekweazu, a member of the men’s basketball team and president of the SAAC, agreed with Wlosinski that the different demands of being an Ivy League athlete set Cornell student-athletes apart from those at other institutions of higher learning. Because every athlete competing in the carnelian and white is not awarded athletic scholarships, and it is usually unlikely they will ever compete a professional level, Ihekweazu feels this helps create a unique attitude.

“Any athlete, especially in the Ivy League, really loves what they do in terms of their sport,” he said. “It’s a combination of a genuine love for the sport and a focus on academics and the profession they want to go into.”

Senior Anthony Macaluso, a tri-captain on the football team, echoed the idea that participating in collegiate athletics is seen as more of a privilege than a right by Cornell student-athletes.

“There’s going to plenty of times in your life when you’re not going to be a Cornell football player,” he said. “But for these four years, that’s the only time in your life that you can call yourself a Cornell football player. So you’ve got to ask yourself before you get into a situation [with negative consequences], ‘is this really worth it?’ This is something that could take away from the one time in your life that you’re never going to get back again.”

Ihekweazu’s comments echoed those of Noel, lending credence to Ihekweazu’s theory that the “tight-knit family” of Cornell athletics is on the same page.

“I believe that we have a very high percentage of very serious young men and women that have chosen Cornell because it is a nationally-renowned university with a distinguished faculty and terrific opportunities academically,” Noel said. “And they don’t take that for granted, and they want to compete for championships while they’re earning this terrific education. I believe that they understand that it is inappropriate and that one cannot achieve their goals if they’re focused in other areas.”

Another student organization, the Red Key Honor Society, further provides expression of the values that are important in the Cornell athletic community. The Red Key promotes fellowship and strong loyalty among Cornell student-athletes with an emphasis on academic achievement and community service. Senior Margaux Viola, president of the society and a co-captain on the women’s lacrosse team, said that the values recognized by the Red Key symbolize what Cornell athletics is all about.

“We’re representing something bigger than ourselves, and it is less than an entitlement,” she said.

Viola’s statements reflect an attitude among those that step onto the playing fields that is in line with the attitudes found within the offices of administrators.

“The athletes understand that they represent more than themselves, and that they’re competing for the athletes who went before them, the alumni that life our programs with their support and their care, and their current team,” Noel said. “We have a very proud group of athletes who understand what it means to be a Cornell, and are proud to be a Cornell, and understand what it means to represent the department in a first-class manner.”

These ideals have also been embraced by Cornell coaches. Viola and Macaluso both pointed to their coaches as crucial contributors to keeping student-athletes focused on appropriate goals. Both carry “think cards” given to them by their coaches. These cards are roughly the size of a driver’s license, and contain a list of all the team’s coaches’ email addresses and phone numbers.

Macaluso’s card also bears a stop sign with “THINK” printed in the center as well as the slogan “Decisions determine destiny,” and both athletes said that their cards encourage its bearers to ask themselves how their actions will reflect on them as individuals, on their sports teams and on their University. This enables the athletes to access a coach any time they feel they might be in a troublesome situation, a step that Wlosinski said is crucial in maintaining a safe and trouble-free group of student-athletes.

“I think that [head] coach [Jim] Knowles [’87] plays a definite part in that because he does such a great job of keeping the team focused that we have our goals in mind,” Macaluso said. “He also knows that we are college students and there are inevitably places where you’re going to get into trouble — hopefully nothing of the magnitude of Harvard or Duke. It’s that open family; knowing you can go to your coach if something happens, [that] you have that network of people there that care about you and really want to help you out.”

While coaches and think cards give student-athletes a constant reminder of the Cornell standard code of conduct for someone representing the University, the programs facilitated by Wlosinski drive the message home. This year, coaches are required to provide their teams with at least two of the programs offered, with no more than 100 people attending each program. Teams will meet as an individual group to participate in the Brief Alcohol and Other Drug Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) and hear presentations from the Sexual Health Awareness Group (SHAG), which covers date rape, sexually transmitted infections and birth control. Gannett Health Services also works closely with Wlosinski on these issues and other topics like body image and eating for success.

While these programs can be repetitive — teams must participate in BASICS once every three years, and a student-athlete will have attended eight programs by the time they graduate — everyone agrees they are valuable to the athletic community.

“The programs are relevant to what goes on in college life,” Ihekweazu said. “It sort of shapes us into making good decisions before it happens.”

Viola agreed.

“When you’re doing them, it seems kind of silly,” she said. “But the message gets passed along the way.”

For Macaluso, these programs only reinforce that the effects of his actions will impact people beyond himself.

“You don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt the people that have given so much to you. Also, it’s your personal name. You only get one reputation — don’t ruin it,” he said. “Not only is it going to hurt you personally, it’s a knock on the program.”

To Noel, all of these viewpoints reinforce that his department has managed to create a culture that regards successful performances in athletics as being of equal importance to strong moral character.

“Inappropriate behavior is counterintuitive to reaching the goals that these young students and athletes have,” he said. “I don’t believe that among our entire student-athlete population, we don’t have individuals that in a given moment or situation, may behave in a way that they would regret later on. I don’t think that’s the case. But I think by and large, we do have a tone in our department where athletes have an additional responsibility to represent their team and our department and our University in a first-class, appropriate manner.”