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College players who get yelled at are more OK with cheating, study finds

REUTERS/Bill Kostroun
In 2013, Rutgers University fired its basketball coach, Mike Rice, after a video surfaced that showed him hitting, shoving and shouting obscenities at his players — including anti-gay slurs.

College athletes who play for verbally abusive coaches — ones who frequently hurl insults or belittling comments at players — are more likely to believe it’s OK to cheat in order to win a game than athletes whose coaches do not display such abuse, according to a study published online Monday by the American Psychological Association.

The study also found that men’s teams are more likely to justify cheating than women’s teams, and that the greatest willingness to cheat is among male athletes in high-profile sports (football, basketball and baseball) at large universities in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

“Many student athletes in Division I schools are looking to go into professional sports after graduation,” said lead researcher Mariya Yukhymenko, a visiting research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a statement released with the study. “They are striving to do well so that they will be noticed, and they really want to score more points and bring victories to their teams.”

The study is based on a 2010 survey involving almost 20,000 student-athletes (41 percent women) on 1,321 teams at 609 U.S. colleges and universities. The athletes played in 11 men’s and 13 women’s sports sanctioned by the NCAA (Divisions I, II and III).

Almost 17 percent of the respondents’ coaches fit into the “high on verbal abuse” category, the survey revealed. Interestingly, no coaches were classified as being low on abuse.

Ethical coaches

The study also looked at the effect of ethical coaching on student-athlete attitudes and behavior. It found that college athletes who play for ethical coaches — those who “offer encouragement (positive persuasion) to their athletes to achieve athletic and ethical excellence” — reported a stronger sense of team inclusiveness and greater satisfaction with their choice of college.

This latter finding is important, say Yukhymenko and her co-authors, because other research has shown that student-athletes who feel a strong sense of belonging to a team and who are happy with their college choice are more likely to graduate.

But the study did not find a correlation between playing for an ethical coach and a decreased willingness to cheat.

That finding — coupled with the finding that abusive coaching is associated with an increased willingness to cheat — suggests that “bad or negative stimuli are more powerful than good ones,” say the researchers.

More than 17 percent of the coaches of the players who took the survey were classified by the researchers as being low on ethical leadership, and just under 17 percent were found to be high in that category.

Needed: a schoolwide ethical climate

The study also discovered a strong correlation between a school’s overall ethical climate and the willingness (or unwillingness) of its athletes to cheat. Those athletes who reported that their college or university strongly valued academic honesty and good sportsmanship and expected them to be positive role models were less likely to be OK with cheating during a game.

But the school must truly value honesty and sportsmanship for this positive effect to occur, warn the researchers.

“Efforts to promote ethics in organizations are more effective when employees perceive that their employer values ethics because ‘it is the right thing to do’ and not simply to comply with the law,” they write. “Given the NCAA’s focus on rule making, enforcement, and sanctioning of infractions, it is possible that many schools might not move beyond a legal compliance mindset and embrace a strong ethical culture.”

A continuing problem

Verbally abusive college coaches have been increasingly in the news. Just last week, the Associated Press reported that the College of Charleston had determined after an investigation that its men’s basketball coach, Doug Wojcik, had used “threatening, degrading and profane language” with his players — including an anti-gay slur.

And in 2013, Rutgers University fired its basketball coach, Mike Rice, after a video surfaced that showed him hitting, shoving and shouting obscenities at his players — again, including anti-gay slurs.

College basketball players  — men and women — who participated in the 2010 survey were, by the way, much more likely than players in other sports to report that their coaches were verbally abusive. About a third of male basketball players who were surveyed and about a fourth of female basketball players indicated their coaches ridiculed and belittled them in front of others.

“I think that raises some questions about the culture in that sport, even though there are a lot of coaches doing it the right way,” said study co-author Thomas Paskus, a quantitative psychologist and the NCAA’s principal research scientist, in a statement.

The study appears in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, which is one of several journals published by the American Psychological Association.

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