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Winning and integrity.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Just in time to relieve the gloom and embarrassment over the off-field conduct of some members of the University of Oregon football team, here comes news of the Ducks' triumphs at the NCAA Indoor Championships last weekend. The women's indoor track team won outright and the men tied for second, with Ashton Eaton setting a world record in the heptathlon. Both teams are running, jumping and living proof that the UO can attain national-caliber success in athletics without compromising high standards of behavior for athletes.

So why can't the team that plays at Autzen Stadium be like the ones that compete at Hayward Field? For the most part, it is. The criminal charges, suspensions and dismissals have involved a half-dozen football players, 6 percent of the team. The other 94 percent undoubtedly are mortified by the pall that their teammates' actions have cast upon them.

Ninety-four percent is still 6 points short of the standard the Ducks must insist upon. It's a standard that can be met, and not just by teams that aren't under pressure to generate revenue for the athletic department.

The UO men's basketball team, for instance, has an NCAA Academic Progress Rate of 975, the highest score in the Pacific-10 conference and well above the Division 1 national average. UO basketball players are attending classes, getting an education and not showing up on the police blotter.

Yet there's no question that a college coach's prime directive is to win. That was made clear Tuesday when the UO made official head basketball coach Ernie Kent's firing.

Kent is no loser. With his overall record of 235-173, his teams have won more basketball games than any in UO history. But Kent's last few seasons have been short of dazzling, and the UO needs a coach who can fill the seats in the new basketball arena rising on the east side of the campus. Nothing personal, great APR, thanks for the memories, but goodbye.

Kent's dismissal, and the troubles with the football team, point to the difficulty of the challenge the UO has set for its athletic programs.

On the one hand, it aspires to compete with the nation's best teams. On the other hand, it hopes to do this without utter surrender to the win-at-all-costs ethos that would allow athletes to be treated as hired performers: coddled and protected when they're winning, and discarded when their usefulness comes to an end.

The only way to achieve both goals is through a strong focus on providing counseling and academic support to those athletes who need it. As Gary Crum pointed out in a guest viewpoint published Wednesday, the university has taken risks in recruiting players whose backgrounds are less than spotless. Such recruiting practices are opportunistic, even exploitative, unless they are redeemed by a strong commitment to helping athletes make the most of the opportunity they've been offered. The recent opening of the John E. Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes is reassuring evidence of such a commitment.

Further evidence might be found in football coach Chip Kelly's decisions about how to discipline players who have broken laws or team rules. Kelly has been criticized for suspending Jeremiah Masoli, who pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary, for an entire season, while suspending LaMichael James, who pleaded guilty to a charge of second- degree physical harassment, for a single game. The contrast seems to elevate a crime against property above a crime against a person.

But Kelly wasn't acting as a judge; he was acting as a coach. Unlike Masoli, James told the truth to Kelly and accepted responsibility. It was the judge's job to apply the law and impose a sentence. It was Kelly's job to show the central importance of honesty and character.

If those are among the values that lie at the heart of the UO's athletic enterprise, the football program's dark days will not last forever.
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Title Annotation:Editorials and Letters; The two aren't exclusive in UO athletics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 18, 2010
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