What if? Ethics cases using various philosophies (Vol. 2) (2024)

By Nate Bural

Abstract

In one of the greatest baseball gambling scandals since Pete Rose earned a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball in 1989, the NCAA issued the largest ban to a college coach in its history. Former head coach of the University of Alabama baseball program, Brian Bohannon, was fired on May 4, 2023, and on February 1, 2024 received a 15-year show-cause order that – in theory –has ended his baseball coaching career. This case study focuses on the actions taken by Bohannon and how they violated Watsuji’s Ethics of Trust. The Ethics of Trust talks about the importance of interconnectedness between us as humans and the need for that trust for us to function in a social community. If that implied level of trust doesn’t exist, would families entrust the well-being of their children to head coaches? Without a level of trust between coaches, players, and their families, the entire landscape of college athletics would cease to exist. Bohannon’s actions violated that trust and put the future of the NCAA at risk. The NCAA responded with the harshest punishment in the history of the organization, but was it enough to restore the trust?

Keywords: Baseball, NCAA, Bohannon, Neff, Alabama, gambling, Ethics of Trust

Putting a Price on Trust:Analyzing the Fallout of Alabama Baseball CoachBrian Bohannon's Gambling Scandal Using Ethics of Trust

America’s pastime. Baseball began in America in the 1840s and is as much a staple of our country as a bald eagle and apple pie. Baseball was painted as a uniquely American creation, free of influence from all other games and all other cultures. During its inception, baseball to an American was defined as being what cricket is to an Englishman (Nemec et al., 2005, p. 8). Baseball has a reputation of being a sport of nostalgia. Fathers and sons together eating hot dogs and Cracker Jack enjoying the beautiful sunshine watching their favorite players’ journey to etch their names alongside legendary figures. Players looking to be the next Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, or Hank Aaron. James Earl Jones’ character, Terence Mann, in the movie Field of Dreams says (Robinson, 1989):

They'll walk out to the bleachers and sit in short sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game, and it'll be as if they'd dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they'll have to brush them away from their faces… The one constant through all the years, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game -- it's a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

According to the complete team statistics database (NCAA.com, 2024), there are 922 intercollegiate baseball teams in the U.S. and Canada, including 295 at the NCAA Division I level. After a regular season of no more than 56 games, NCAA Division I baseball teams who qualify for their respective conference championship tournaments can compete for the right to advance to the NCAA playoffs. Every conference has unique rules wherein the conference tournament champion will receive an automatic qualifying berth (AQ) in the national playoffs. Once the AQ teams are decided, an NCAA selection committee determines the at-large berths to bring the total playoff field to 64 teams. In 2023, the regional round was played at 16 various locations around the nation with four teams at each site. The winners from each region are reseeded for a Super Regional round to bring the total number of teams down to its final eight. Finally, those remaining eight teams are sent to Omaha, Nebraska for the Men’s College World Series –a double-elimination tournament to determine the NCAA Division I National Champion (NCAA, 2023). The 2023 NCAA Men’s College World Series (MCWS) marked the most-watched MCWS on ESPN platforms on record. The 16-game postseason averaged 1.65 million viewers across the platforms, up 48% from the 2022 MCWS (McKay, 2023, para. 1).

The NCAA’s stance on gambling in any sport is very clear –#DontBetOnIt. Student-athletes, coaches, or athletic staff are not permitted to place wagers on any sport sponsored by the NCAA, including all levels from youth to professional. Even their state permits or promotes sports betting—it is not permitted by the NCAA. Those caught sports wagering in violation of the NCAA bylaws risk their eligibility as a student-athlete or position as a coach and/or administrator (NCAA.org, 2007, Bylaw 10.02.1).

Just recently, baseball gambling reached out of the professional ranks and infiltrated the NCAA level with the first sanctioned penalty. Alabama Head Coach Brad Bohannon was terminated and given a 15-year show-cause order. Any NCAA institution that hires Bohannon must suspend him for "100% of the baseball regular season for the first five seasons of his employment" (Purdum, 2024, para. 3)

The Bohannon gambling scandal begs the question of the NCAA’s power and authority, as well as the NCAA’s ethical commitment to doing what is in the best interest of student-athletes all around the country. The NCAA’s ethical judgment has been in serious question for some time, but choosing such a weak punishment for potentially the largest scandal in the history of one of its premier sports makes a powerful statement.

Theoretical Discussion of Ethics of Truth

Watsuji Tetsurō was a prominent Japanese philosopher in the early 20th century. Watsuji argued that focusing on individuals overlooks our connection as the human race. We exist within a network of social connections that shape who we are, and we will always be influenced by our cultural and social backgrounds (Carter & McCarthy, 2019a, sec. 3).

Three key points about the Ethics of Trust are reliance on others, belief in other’s integrity, and reciprocity. Trust is a two-way street. The relationship between a head coach, the student-athlete, and their family needs this level of trust to be maintained in order for collegiate athletics to thrive. When a coach recruits a player, there is an implied sense of parental transfer of responsibility. A young person leaving home for the first time to learn adulthood while still under the care of this head coach, who makes an ethical commitment by NCAA standards to care for their well-being (NCAA, 2024, sec. 2).

Watsuji’s view on ethics as the study of how we maintain and nurture our social connections, acknowledging the importance of both individuality and collective well-being in creating harmonious societies. Carter and McCarthy (2019b, sec. 3) states:

(Watsuji) cautions that it is imperative to recognize that a human being is not just an individual but is also a member of many social groupings. We are individuals, and yet we are not just individuals, for we are also social beings; and we are social beings, but we are not just social beings, for we are also individuals. Many who interpret Watsuji forget the importance which he gave to this balanced and dual nature of a human being. The Japanese word for ethics is rinri, which is composed of two characters, rin and ri. Rin means ‘fellows,’ ‘company,’ and specifically refers to a system of relations guiding human association. Ri means ‘reason,’ or ‘principle,’ the rational ordering of human relationships. These principles are what make it possible for human beings to live in a cooperative community.”

Trust between people serves as a basis for morality and creates, at least a one-way, appeal for the responsibility for that person’s well-being (Myska, 2008, p. 2). Especially regarding professionals and youths today. Beginning at a young age, there is a sense of trust when allowing your children to go into someone else’s care – starting with choosing the right babysitter or daycare and ultimately ending with college or even marriage. There is an instinctual drive in the parent for trust in the person to whom their child is entrusted. When an 18- to 22-year-old student-athlete commits themselves to a college or a program, they are putting their trust and the trust of their family into the leader of that program. It’s a one-way transfer of trust with blind faith of reciprocation.

Using this example of principles, the values deeply rooted in this philosophy are stewardship, humaneness, and truth.

Case Narrative

The University of Alabama has a long history of excelling in NCAA competition. Their football team has won 18 national championships in their illustrious history, bringing fame and notoriety to all their NCAA programs. The baseball program is another program with a long history of success. Tide Baseball has won 14 SEC championships, second most in the league behind only Louisiana State University (LSU) and has qualified for the NCAA College World Series five times. In the mid 2010s, Alabama’s baseball program was in disarray. They had changed head coaches twice in a three-year period before tapping Brian Bohannon to bring their program back to prominence in 2017.

Bohannon was an instant success. After making an eight-game improvement on the previous season, his second year saw the Tide return to 30 wins on the season for the first time since 2016. Bohannon and the Tide were off to an incredible 16-1 start in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season and the following year, Alabama made a triumphant return to the NCAA regional tournament for the first time since 2014. Bohannon would coach through the 2023 season with a total record of 178-128 with three SEC Tournament appearances, two regional showings, and a trip to the CWS Super Regional round in 2023 (Baseball Reference, 2024).

On April 28, 2023, Alabama was scheduled to play in Baton Rouge against No. 1 LSU. This was arguably one of the most anticipated events of the day because of their prominent stature in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). However, suspicious activity close to game time would ultimately create a ripple effect around nation. The suspicious activity alerted the Ohio Casino Control Commission and U.S. Integrity, a Las Vegas-based company that identifies suspicious behavior by analyzing changes in betting data against a benchmark of normal betting activity. They monitor the data to see if discrepancies coincide with notable player or coaching events, reveal officiating abnormalities, or are indicative of the misuse of insider information (U.S. Integrity, 2024).

On that day, the starting pitcher for Alabama was supposed to be sophom*ore Luke Holman. In 2023, Holman was in his second year with Alabama and was enjoying what would go on to be his best season. He finished the 2023 season 7-4 with a 3.67 earned run average and was a second-team all-region selection. Against LSU, however, he was a late scratch and replaced by relief pitcher Hagan Banks, who was told he was starting “an hour before” first pitch (University of Alabama Athletics, 2023, para. 5). Banks was a solid relief pitcher for the Tide who would finish the 2023 season with a 3.48 earned run average in 33.2 innings of work. Banks, however, was making only his fourth collegiate start and just the second of his career against an SEC opponent.

Before that announcement was made official, an Ohio bettor attempted to make a large bet on Alabama to lose and told the staff at the BetMGM Sportsbook in Cincinnati, “If only you guys knew what I know” (Kelly, 2024, para. 10-13). After the game, the executive director of the Ohio Casino Control Commission stopped accepting all bets on Alabama baseball, U.S. Integrity sent communication to its clients to avoid betting on the team (Alvarez, 2023, para. 2-4), and two days later the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement instructed all sportsbooks in the state to suspend wagering on all contests involving University of Alabama baseball (Alvarez, 2023). The states of Indiana and Pennsylvania would also follow suit. Less than a week later, on May 4, Bohannon was fired for “among other things, violating the standards, duties, and responsibilities expected of university employees" (Purdum, 2023, para. 3)

The investigation showed that on the day of the April 28 game at LSU, Bohannon texted a man, later identified as Bert Neff, who he knew to be engaged in gambling on Alabama baseball. A text message from Bohannon revealed, “HAMMER … (Student-athlete) is out for sure … Lemme know when I can tell LSU… Hurry." Neff then proceeded to place a $100,000 bet on Alabama to lose the game (FOX Sports, 2024, para. 5).

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said (Purdum, 2023, para. 15):

The University of Alabama has taken swift action after information about baseball sports wagering activity was questioned by industry regulators. Ensuring the integrity of athletic competition is our highest priority, and for that purpose the SEC monitors gambling activity through its relationship with US Integrity and has done so since 2018. There must be zero tolerance for activity that puts into question the integrity of competition. We will remain in communication with the University throughout its ongoing review and will have no further comment at this time.

Ethics of Trust Approach

Several factors are at play here in regard to ethics of trust. There’s a level of trust between university and head coach, there’s a level of trust between Conference/NCAA and the university, and there’s a level of trust between coach and player (NCAA, 2024, sec. 2). Bohannon’s actions created a clear breach of trust between all the relationships in question. He disregarded his moral responsibility of integrity to put the success of his student-athletes above himself, which in turn violates an inherent responsibility all head coaches make to the families of their players. Using the ethics of trust model, the key values involved those that bring a level of human connection such as stewardship, humaneness, and truth.

Principles/Values

Initially, the first value Bohannon put at risk is stewardship. As the head coach of a program, you have been entrusted with a lot of responsibility: the well-being of your players and staff, as well academics, budget, and administrative duties. Being named the head coach of a program, much less one as prestigious at the University of Alabama, comes with an inherent responsibility to the program. After scratching his starting pitcher and reverting to the reliever for the game, Bohannon showed a blatant disregard for stewardship with a lack of faith in his new pitcher.

The definition of humaneness is the quality of compassion or consideration for others. Bohannon violated this value with self-serving actions. The decision to allow one man in on his professional decision making, with the potential (because the intent has not been revealed) for personal gains, undermined his respect and integrity for his players, fans, and the entire university. It also showed a complete disregard for compassion for his new pitcher. By waiting until an hour before the game to decide, shows a lack of empathy for the original starter’s injury as well as the success of the new pitcher by not having someone prepared in the instance the starter is unable to pitch.

When adopting an Ethics of Trust approach, it's crucial to instill a strong belief in the locker room. The main goal should always be to put student-athletes in the best position to win. Knowing that Holman was dealing with back tightness and could potentially be unavailable, the staff could have been prepared internally with a backup plan –even if that plan was Banks all along. Bohannon stating that Banks only knew “an hour before” seemed like a failed attempt to push Holman beyond his physical limitations.

Stakeholders

Several stakeholders are at risk in this situation, beginning with Bohannon. The choice ultimately ended his collegiate coaching career, and because the cause of his punishment is a global issue that affects college and professional levels, likely his baseball career entirely.

The players on his team, who were enjoying renewed success during his tenure, that now found themselves without a head coach. All the players on the team suffered a betrayal of trust, as did their families who entrusted the care of their sons to Bohannon and the coaching staff. Also, the team and university staff whose careers will forever be tied to this scandal, primarily from a direct affiliation such as assistant coaches and administrators. The university as a whole also suffered damage to its reputation and ultimately took multiple punishments from the NCAA despite dismissing Bohannon.

Fans of baseball and all other sports from around the world who will forever question the integrity of coaches and players competing at the highest level. For sports alone, betting on games has become a phenomenon. In 2022, the market size of the sports betting and lottery sector worldwide was valued at over $235 billion. This figure shows a decrease from the previous year's total of $242.82 billion. By 2023, the market was forecast to increase to $242 billion (Statista, 2023). With this much action happening all around the world, there will inevitably be a lost sense of trust between fans, players, and coaches moving forward. When coaches make questionable calls in a game that seem odd, will there forever be a black cloud associated with the move that could lead to gambling? Social media evidence shows, even now, 18- to 22-year-old student-athletes, using basketball for example, choose to take the game into their own hands and miss a game-winning shot instead of passing to a teammate and are now berated online by bettors. Now more than ever, it’s a coach’s responsibility to protect student-athletes from these situations whenever possible.

Decision

After a near eight-month investigation by the NCAA, Bohannon received the harshest penalty ever sanctioned by league, becoming the third person ever to receive a 15-year show-cause order. NCAA.org, 2023, Bylaw 19.02.03 states:

A show-cause order is an order that requires a member institution to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Committee on Infractions why it should not be subject to a penalty or additional penalty for not taking appropriate disciplinary or corrective action with regard to an institutional staff member or representative of the institution's athletics interests found by the Committee on Infractions as having been involved in a violation of NCAA bylaws.

This also means that any employing NCAA member institution shall restrict Bohannon from any athletically related position. If Bohannon becomes employed during the show-cause period, he will be suspended for 100% of the baseball regular season for the first five seasons of his employment. In addition to Bohannon’s personal show-cause, the University of Alabama received three years’ probation, a $5,000 fine, and is required to retain a firm to provide comprehensive gambling education to student-athletes, coaches and athletics administrators (Cahill, 2024, para. 3). Neff has been charged with obstructing a federal grand jury investigation and faces up to 10 years in prison (Purdum, 2024, para. 12).

Under a philosophy of trust, Bohannon would have avoided this situation entirely because his trust would belong solely to the team and their well-being. With the student-athlete’s well-being at the forefront of his decision making, there likely would have been a stronger plan in place that would have inspired confidence in their ability to win the game –as opposed to a kneejerk negative reaction of defeat shared outside the two-way street of trust between the players and staff under his care.

Had the NCAA levied punishment with student-athletes in mind, there should have been a larger precedent to never allow Bohannon the opportunity to work with NCAA student-athletes again. Through the ultimate betrayal of trust, yes the punishment is harsh on paper, but ultimately it’s nothing more than a five-year suspension from actual coaching.

Conclusion

The Brad Bohannon gambling scandal will go down as one of the clumsiest mistakes in the history of the NCAA and will be on the NCAA’s radar for the next 15 years (through 2039). But what happens in the year 2040? Bohannon is 48 years old so after 15 years, assuming he remains in good health, he’s 63 years old. Due to the slow pace of baseball, it’s common for head coaches to continue well into their 70s before retiring. Should Brad Bohannon ever be allowed to coach again?

Time will tell if the NCAA’s punishment fit the crime and he could be back coaching again after five years. Due to the definition of his penalty, if he is employed any time in the next 15 years, he is suspended for 100% of regular season baseball games. In theory, Bohannon could take a job at minimal pay for a lower-level program (Division II or III) and serve as an advisor for five years then be back coaching immediately after that under the shadow of a show-cause.

Looking at some of Major League Baseball’s punishments against gambling, Bohannon’s punishment is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. According to History.com, 2024:

In the early 20th century, some of baseball’s most talented and well-known players, such as “Turkey” Mike Donlin and Hal Chase, as well as manager John McGraw, who publicly won $400 when his New York Giants won the World Series in 1905, were often suspected of gambling on their own games. Chase was considered a dangerous man to have on a team because of his willingness to make extra money by dropping fly balls or misplaying first base. It was common then for players and coaches to make money, betting on themselves to win games. If players were willing to bet against themselves, they likely just weren’t signed to play.

All things came to a head in 1919 with the infamous, Black Sox Scandal. In August 1915, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson was traded to the Chicago White Sox for $31,500 cash and three players. The White Sox were a talented team, winning the World Series in 1917 and the American League pennant in 1919. They were the heavy favorites to beat Cincinnati in the 1919 World Series, but the Reds ultimately won the series. In response to suspicions that the White Sox were under the influence of sports bookies, Joe Jackson and seven other White Sox players, were accused of conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series (The Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum and Baseball Library, 2024). This led Major League Baseball to hire its first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge.

In the late 1980s, a major scandal rocked major league baseball again when one of the greatest hitters of all-time, Pete Rose, who was now the manager of the Cincinnati Reds was accused of gambling on his own team. It was known in baseball circles since the 1970s that Pete Rose had a gambling problem. Although, at first, he bet only on horse races and football games, allegations surfaced in early 1989 that Rose was not only betting on baseball, but on his own team. Major League Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti began an inquiry and hired Washington lawyer John Dowd to head the investigation. Dowd compiled hundreds of hours of testimony from numerous sources that detailed Rose’s history of gambling on baseball while serving as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, including betting on his own team. Although Rose continued to proclaim his innocence, he was eventually persuaded to accept a settlement that included a lifetime ban from the game. At a subsequent press conference, Giamatti characterized Rose’s acceptance of the ban as a no-contest plea to the charges against him. In 2004, after years of repeated denials, Rose published My Prison Without Bars, in which he finally confessed to gambling on the Reds, though he added that had always bet on the Reds to win. Because of the lifetime ban, Rose cannot work in Major League Baseball, and, despite his stellar playing career, he is not eligible for the Hall of Fame (History.com, 2024).

Bohannon’s punishment is the largest sanction against a baseball coach in the history of the NCAA, but compared to the sport, the punishment does not fit the crime. He cast aside his integrity, his compassion, and his morals for cash despite earning a salary of a half-million per year from Alabama.

The SEC and the University of Alabama should be commended for their treatment and swift action towards the coach. In a league and at a school with such an immense reputation, neither the school nor the conference could afford such a dark cloud to hang over one of its programs –especially heading into the College World Series. With their head coach being 30-15 at the time of his firing, the decision would not have been an easy one for an athletic director. Greg Byrne, the AD for Alabama, certainly would have passed the Ethics of Trust for this decision. However, the NCAA’s weak punishment for a potentially earth-shattering scandal is a prime example of “me greater than we” mentality.

After the White Sox scandal in 1919, trust in Major League Baseball was restored with the implementation of a commissioner. This position is someone solely dedicated to the game of baseball, bringing a new standard for the commitment of trust between players, coaches, and fans. The NCAA could stand to take a page from the professional playbook and reevaluate how they reignite trust at the collegiate ranks.

References

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Alvarez, N. (2023, May 4). New Jersey joins Ohio in preventing bets on Alabama baseball; SEC issues first statement. AL.com. Retrieved March 29, 2024, from https://www.al.com/alabama/2023/05/new-jersey-joins-ohio-in-preventing-bets-on-alabama-baseball-per-espn.html

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What if? Ethics cases using various philosophies (Vol. 2) (2024)
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