By Dr. Lawrence Ruddell and Walter T. Champion
This case involves the disagreement arising over the attempted enforcement of state ethical standards by a citizen’s ethics advisory board (Board) and the interpretation and application of those standards by a stakeholder.
The Board is a part of the office of state ethics and has been tasked by the state of Connecticut with advising on issues related to the Code of Ethics for Public Officials. The Board’s organizational function seems to be monitoring state activities for the purpose of maintaining an ethical culture in the state system and also reducing financial and other risk due to unchecked unethical activity. One of the stipulations of the by-laws deals with hiring a relative.
The University of Connecticut (UC) took issue with this stipulation in the hiring of their football coach (Randy Edsall) in December of 2016 and, as part of the hiring agreement, the allowance of the new coach to have his son (Corey) hired to coach football. UC suggests that it did address the concern of the Board by adding caveats to Coach’s contract and his working relationship with his son. However, the Board disagreed.
In addressing the law and ethics, there is not always a synch between what is ethical and legal, and vice versa. So, for example, UC argues that the meaning of terms in the Board’s by-laws is not clear and “open for interpretation.” This might be fine as a legal argument but presents a slippery slope when applied to ethics. Ethics requires a standard and the clear meaning of words supports that standard. In modern philosophy, words are reassessed for meaning in an immediate context (i.e. Bill Clinton’s “argument” that “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”). UC does no good to their own ethical culture by scouring for cases that question the meaning of words and we could argue, undermining ethics in the process of trying to win their case. Also, the statement, “But, the Court has never required slavish adherence to any single definition from any single source” begs the question of whether objective ethics are welcome into the court room.
Also, the bounds of authority should be set more clearly for the Board. They seem to be set up by the governor to have an advisory role, so it appears odd from an organizational perspective that they are initiating legal action.
Though the case is about a violation of the Board’s rules, UC and Coach Edsall insisted that it was about nepotism. The problem with nepotism is the fact that relatives (and in some cases friends) may not have the skills needed to do the job and may get paid more than they are worth. In other words, a relative or friend “cuts in line” in front of other candidates who may be more qualified. A football coaching staff is a bit different in that the head coach is usually afforded the leeway to hire whoever they want to create the desired team culture, including finding those who the head coach can trust. Ergo, it makes sense in this case that the head coach would want his son. The question that is not addressed in the case is: Is the son qualified for the position?
Unfortunately, from an ethical perspective, the Board chooses to pursue a technicality; the fact that Edsell had signed his offer letter on December 28, 2016 and so was deemed an “employee” on that date so in violation of their standards when discussing his son’s employment. Pursuing this technicality is at best a legalistic application of ethics (getting at the letter versus the spirit of the standard) and misses the bigger ethical issue of potential nepotism; which as the case determined, was addressed by Edsell’s contract (“other terms” section) and signing a conflict of interest disclosure form. So, we could say that the Board’s entire efforts were moot from an ethical viewpoint; especially in light of the court’s ruling. In fact, as pointed out, their decision to pursue this matter may have actually damaged the Board’s recommendation and any desire to further ethics.
From a Sports Management Professional (SMP) perspective, there are several lessons learned here. Since theoretically, ethics is different (though not removed) from the law, it would seem that the Board would seek other means for addressing the Edsell/UC issue rather than a lawsuit. Ethical influence normally comes through persuasion (though some ethical models would beg to differ) so active communication and conflict management and, as stated previously, making sure the Edsell’s son was qualified may be a better course of action for advancing ethics. Also, it is hard to know what the Board would have recommended UC to do. Edsall needed to sign his contract as this was the basis for pursuing the son. To pursue the son without having Edsall as the official coach could have created its own set of problems.
Also, this may just be a matter of a “turf war” where the Board is trying to assert their importance. So, the Board must evaluate itself to make sure it really wants to advance ethics rather than their own egos.
On the other hand, SMPs have to be aware of all stakeholders in their sphere of operation. In this case, the UC athletic director (David Benedict) could have done a better job at least reviewing the Board’s ethical stipulations. It seems the whole case might have been avoided if UC had begun their negotiations with Edsell’s son before the offer letter was signed; but again, there may have issues there. Another consideration is that Benedict could have had a conversation with the Board and asked them what could be done to complete the hirings and remain within the code.
In summary, this case is somewhat tedious from a legal standpoint (i.e. what the definition of “employee” is), but gives helpful “lessons learned” for SMPs; being proactive in knowing stakeholders, resolving conflict and promoting ethics.
Ruddell and Champion are authors of Sports Ethics for Sports Management Professionals, 2nd Edition. Published by Jones & Bartlett Learning, the book can be ordered at: https://www.jblearning.com/catalog/productdetails/9780763743840