Recently, several universities were charged with NCAA violations when football players were found to have received large sums of money and gifts — even prostitution, from overly enthusiastic alumni/patrons. In all, the dollar value of the money or gifts was extensive. The NCAA has yet to make a ruling on the degree of punishment for violators; however, some years ago, the most severe penalty ever passed down to a school for an NCAA violation was to SMU – their football program was canceled. Such an action could never occur today — there are simply too many schools that regularly break NCAA rules. College football is big business –- it raises big money for cash scrapped schools. Bottom line –taking gifts by an NCAA athlete, coach etc. of any amount is against NCAA rules, yet it is done over and over again.  Therefore, how do we control alumni/patrons whose bottom line is winning at all costs or do we disregard the messenger and center on athletes to help them not only to resist temptation, but to even report unscrupulous individuals?

One proven method shown to raise an individual’s level of moral development and which could be a panacea to college players susceptible to taking illegal gifts is Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.  Over a three-year period, Kohlberg was able to lower the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders from a high of 33% to a low of 18 % by conducting more development groups. Specifically, by raising juvenile offenders’ moral reasoning, he was also able to help juvenile offenders develop a greater respect for law and order, which, in turn, helped lower the recidivism rate.

Kohlberg’s theory is not complicated, nor difficult to implement which is why I advocate his theory as a strategy to helping college athletes who might be prone to accepting gifts from college alumni/patrons and/or breaking rules that could mean loss of a scholarship or an entire university team placed on probation. Only a minority of individuals, including coaches and patrons are willing to win at all costs? Why should entire college programs be lost to this minority?

Kohlberg administered moral dilemmas to several groups of boys over a 30-year period that defined six stages of moral development, and which was later altered to five stages. The key to Kohlberg theory is directly connected to cognition or how we think and moral judgment or how we deal with life’s dilemmas, such as dishonest gift taking by college athletes. For example, an effective method to describe Kohlberg’s theory is how we might teach math to elementary school children. In first grade, the child begins with basic addition (one operation), then from about second to fourth: addition, subtraction, multiplication with regrouping (two plus operations) and ultimately division (fourth/fifth grade) and three plus operations (divide, multiply, subtract and bring down).  The key is to teach math principles that are as close to the student’s cognitive level as possible. In other words, you do not teach first graders basic addition and next division — their brains are not ready to accommodate more than one operation! The same holds true for moral development; that is, most seven to ten year olds judge the world in black and white, or fair versus unfair. In short, they are able to handle two operations or ideas at one time – theirs and yours. As they move up the moral development ladder, they can take the perspective of more than two ideas or as in our math example, division or three plus operations. These additional operations in moral development would extend to family, institution, teams, and society in general. Again, the key is to introduce information slightly above the individual’s level oft thinking.  Kohlberg was able to lower juvenile offenders recidivism rates by stimulating a greater understanding or respect for rules and laws dictated by the group. We can apply the same premise of our example of teaching math. Instead of seeing the world of rules as fair versus unfair (Kohlberg’s stage 2) juvenile offenders could now think abstractly (stage three) or take the perspective of the group or three plus operations. First, Kohlberg assessed the offenders to find out their level of moral development; then challenged them with real life moral dilemmas that were slightly higher than their level of moral development, which for most juvenile offenders was Stage 2 — fair versus unfair. In addition, when juvenile offenders gave answers that were at stage 2, he presented his point of view at stage 3, or again, slightly higher than their level of understanding. Kohlberg was correct in believing that it is our brain’s natural tendency to want to think at a higher level, which is why the juvenile offenders developed a greater respect for rules — not fair versus unfair, but rules that applied to the well-being of the entire group.

Apply this same example to athletes who broke NCAA rules by taking gifts and money and we begin to see why Kohlberg’s theory could be a valuable strategy for changing the mindset of athletes who are prone to break rules. They see the world concretely or in black and white and follow rules based on what is fair versus unfair. For some athletes, it becomes particularly unfair when athletes see the money universities make on ticket sales, TV contracts, versus what they receive — a free ride, as well as the possibility of risking life and limb in a football game.

Moreover, such a mindset starts early in a gifted athlete’s life. When young athletes are rewarded with gifts for their athletic performance as young adults they often are molded to think only at stage 2, and like those who took gifts and money are rooted in stage 2 moral reasoning – fair versus unfair.

Fortunately, by using basic moral judgment assessments to determine an individual’s moral stage and moral remediation similar to what Kohlberg implemented with juvenile offenders, most college athletes who think at stage 2 can be moved to higher stages. The bottom line — are our universities willing take the leap to moral remediation or are they content to stay the course and allow these players to fail? If this is the case then what moral stage are our universities operating at?

Dr. David Sortino, a psychologist and current Director of Educational Strategies, a private consulting company catering to teachers, parents, students.  

For additional articles you can go to Dr. Sortino’s blog: Santa Rosa Press Democrat – Dr. David Sortino or  e-mail: