Are Sports in General and Water Polo in Particular Training 
Players to Become WorldCom and Enron Executives?

Richard Hunkler, PhD
Water Polo Planet

Are sports teaching our young people that the “Ends” justify the “Means”? Are sports sending the messages that it is all right to cheat as long as you win the game or it is all right to cheat as long as you win the championship because losing is unacceptable?  More importantly does it say to our youth that it is acceptable for the CEO of a large corporation to lie and cheat to win? By win in this situation I mean creating ungodly like profits for oneself and one’s stockholders while double dealing one's own employees?

Administrative Rules – the Vegetables

For example, on the USAWP Message Board of late there has been a heated and extensive discussion over “Practice Times in College”. The following practice schedule of a men’s D1 water polo team was posted on the message board:

Tuesday, October 31st
7:00 - 8:00 AM Weights
8:00 - 10:00 AM Practice
2:00 - 5:00 PM Practice
5:30 - 7:00 PM Video

Prior to this subject reaching the message board I was given this same schedule by a very reliable source. On the message board, it was pointed out that there is a NCAA rule that states during its season a team can only work out 20 hours in a week and no more than 4 hours in a day. This didn’t deter many posters because in spite of the rule they insinuated that if you were at a D1 school it was all right to work out this type of schedule. In fact the silliest remark I read went something like this, “Welcome to D1 water polo!” I don’t care if you play D1, D2, or D3 college water polo, it is NOT all right to break the very administrative rules your institution agree to play under. The athletes, coaches, and administrators should not allow it to happen.

An easy way out of this dilemma would be to have all D1 schools cheat and workout 7 ½ hours a day, but then 21 wrongs wouldn’t make a right (there are 21 D1 schools). Wait a minute the NCAA Water Polo Championship is an open division championship which would mean the D2 and D3 schools would have to workout this long as well. Now there is what we might name the “Sport’s-play Domino Theory” and that is really a scary domino theory. The “Vietnam Domino Theory” said that we had to stay in Vietnam because if Vietnam were to become a communist country then all the countries in that region would become communist countries was not near as scary. The Vietnam domino theory was a fear tactic to keep us fighting in Vietnam – sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it.

After World War II it was decided that a soldier could no longer use the old excuses, “My superiors told me to do it” or “I was only following orders” to escape punishment. Granted it is going to be almost impossible for a player to blow the whistle on his or her coach or team members, and many coaches know that already. Many coaches also know that almost any rule can be circumvented through deception and lies. Thus, it will have to be up to the coaches to police themselves. Heaven forbid the possibility that a school’s administration is in cahoots with a dishonest coach because that would be similar to placing the coaches in charge of the referees - a lose, lose proposition.  (If your school receives a penny of federal funding, then a whistle blower’s job or activity is protected by Federal Law.)

One of the primary reasons for having administrative rules in a conference is so there will be a level playing field for all teams participating in the conference. Every time a rule is broken by an athlete, coach, or administrator, it really diminishes not only those that break the rules but also those that have to compete with these cheaters. It lessens those in the conference who do not cheat by reducing their chance of beating those teams that do cheat and, thus, diminishes their opportunity to win a conference championship. Isn’t a team sport supposed to be about learning, camaraderie, fair play, sportsmanship… and winning? It appears when we make sports only about winning is when we lose our way.

Playing Rules – the Meat and Potatoes

Enough talk about the vegetables, the administrative rules, let’s now talk about the meat and potatoes, the playing rules. As a coach didn’t you ever teach your players how to outwit, trick, dupe, dodge, elude, bypass or circumvent the playing rules? Yes I did! Not only did I teach my players to do this but I also prefaced my “get around the playing rules” lessons with platitudes that tried to rationalize or justify what I was doing. I can still hear my talk to the players before each of these lessons, “I know you are going to ask yourself if I am teaching you how to cheat and the answer to that question is ‘No’.  I am going to teach you how to grab suits, stunt (cut players and fake a foul), push off, hold, and other such skills that will let you “take advantage” of the existing rules. The only thing this harms is the other player's pride. I define cheating as teaching you skills that will physically harm other players. The skills I am going to teach have a long tradition of being a part of the game we love and play.”

I read that today and say, “Whoa, who died and left me the gate keeper of the playing rules at that time or any other time?” What I was doing is plain and simple. I was teaching my players how to cheat the existing rules. No matter what you call it, “taking advantage of the rules” or anything else, it is still cheating. A rule is a rule is a rule, and a rule by any other name is still a rule. The only way to prevent this from being called cheating is to place in the rule book a disclaimer after the holding and pushing off rule which reads, “It is all right to do these things, hold, push off, or grab suits, if the referee doesn’t see them!”

If we do this then the “Sport’s-play Domino Theory” will raise its ugly head again. If it is all right to hold, push off, and grab suits when the referee isn’t looking, then why isn’t it all right to kick, sucker punch, and grab private parts when the referee isn’t looking? Remember the old adage, “In for a penny; in for a pound” or translated into sport talk, “In for a small cheat; in for a large cheat”. Maybe we could add another disclaimer that would read, “It is NOT all right to do these things, kick, sucker punch, or grab private parts, whether the referee sees them or not! Moreover, if a player has a facial bleeding cut or a facial broken bone then the nearest opponent to the injured player will be rolled on a brutality call.” This last part is the eye for an eye clause meaning that someone on the guilty team will be punished for brutality whether the referee sees it or not. What if it is not the guilty player but the best player on the team that gets tossed? I promise you the coach will nip this type of “cheap shot” behavior in the bud if he or she thought this could actually happen.

On one of my earlier teams I had a freshman who was clearly a sucker puncher or cheap shot artist. Every time I saw him throw a cheap shot I would pull him for the rest of the game, and if he did it in the fourth quarter, he wasn’t allowed to play in the next game. He loved to play water polo so much that by one third of the way through his first season I never saw him throw another sucker punch that season. You saying that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it again. It simply means you didn’t see him do it again that season. Well, if you think that, then you think wrong because I had the manager specifically watch him every game of that season. My manager was Sindy Michaels-Mirales and she had and still has more common sense and ethics than this player and me put together.

What is also interesting is I coached two of my sons at Slippery Rock University and I have often had this discussion about my water polo ethics with my oldest son Wynne. (I have had many other ethical discussions with my youngest son Wes as well but not on this issue.) To this day my oldest son refuses to believe that I taught him how to cheat the rules in water polo. He continues to tell me that all I did was teach him how to take advantage of the rules. Thank god for young and old sons that still place their dad on an undeserved pedestal. Coaching two of my sons in water polo was two of the greatest experiences in my life. Also my middle son, Sean, asking my advice about all manner of things has been another one of the greatest experiences of my life. (Saying something good about all three of my sons is called balancing the "love meter" at our home.)

Following the Rules – the Dessert

Come on coach … by telling your little stories it looks like you are begging the question asked in the title of the article. That is true because I don’t really have any answers for this quandary in our sport of water polo. You know the quandary that says it is all right to cheat a little but not all right to cheat a lot! I choose to believe that in spite of our short comings the players, coaches, and administrators are doing more good than bad. At my age I worry about the new generations of athletes not only in our sport but also the athletes in other sports as well. Are they playing water polo for the right reasons?

I worry because it appears winning has become a thousand times more important than the reasons sports were created in the first place. And in professional sports the bottom line is money – show me the money! That is another reason I believe water polo is doing good because most of our athletes play water polo because they love it not because of the rewards. The number of external rewards in water polo can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand if the  thumb can be counted as another finger – play on a college team with a scholarship in hand (pun intended), play in a National Championship, play in a World Championship, play in a European Professional League, and play in an Olympics. 

Now the internal rewards are another story because one would need both hands of all the people living in LA or Chicago or New York City to count these kinds of rewards (Note I gave the reader a choice of a West, Mid-west, or East city to keep all contingencies in the water polo community happy If I didn’t do that then there would probably be an argument over which city would be the best - for counting the water polo internal rewards.) A price tag can never be placed on an internal reward because each of these kinds of rewards are valued differently by different individuals in the sport. Ask any two water polo players why they are playing water polo and you will probably receive two entirely different lists. Because there are so many reasons why people play water polo and because hardly any of the reasons involve monetary rewards is another plus on the side of water polo doing good.

In a small book or handout called, 7 Good Reasons to Get Involved in Sports, by Kim Harrell the following reasons are listed: Encourages a healthy life style; Promotes self esteem; Learn goal setting; Learn and experience team work; Develop time management skills; Learn about dealing with adversity; and Have fun. In water polo you can easily accomplish those same seven goals plus many, many more. Aye, another reason as to why water polo is doing good and is helping to balance our moral compass that “taking advantage of the rules” has lowered.

Finally, there are at least two more reasons as to why water polo has done more good than bad. The first is that the college grade point averages of both men and women are some of the highest in the Nation. Secondly, if you compared the percentages of serious crimes committed by water polo players with those committed by players of other sports, especially football and basket ball, you would know we are doing a great deal more good than those more popular sports are. Thus, do I believe water polo is training the new CEO for the old WorldCom or Enron? No, I don’t. Do I believe everything about water polo is hunky dory? No, I don’t. Do I think there is room for improvement in the ethics department? Yes, I do. And I believe that the new code of Ethics for Players and Coaches just passed by the USAWP Board of Directors is an excellent start towards bailing out our watered down ethics.

Email Coach Hunkler at [email protected]