Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Case Against High School Coaches In Positions of Power

We should be wary of seemingly unassuming high school coaches who ascend to positions of power. This entry is going to focus on empirical data. Two case studies in high school coaches who ascended to positions of power, only to abuse those positions of power and/or betray the public trust.

Case Study No. 1: Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert. Perhaps it is his matinee idol looks, but most people probably think that Hastert is a former celebrity-turned-politician or something. But, it may shock you to know that thirty years ago, he was directing sweaty guys how to grapple with each other -- he was a high school wrestling coach.

Now, he is perhaps one of the most powerful, thuggish and manipulative House Speakers ever. There is no compromise with him. His partner in legislative mischief is an ethically challenged former exterminator-- Tom Delay. The bug man and the wrestling coach. Not necessarily what one would have imagined as one of the most effective legislative duo in history. B.J. and the Bear? That's one weird duo that I might have imagined being effective in Congress. "Congresswoman, who are you to question the Banana Subsidy Act of 2005? Why another banana subsidy act? It's, uh, part of the President's plan to stimulate fruit production. It's not you job to ask why congresswoman. Just sponsor the bill. Isn't that right, Bear?" [Bear scratches head, grins and blubbers lips -- Sheriff Lobo stews in the corner, somehow foiled again].

Hastert's job is to steamroll the President's agenda through the House by any means necessary (wonder if he has that cool Malcom X poster in his office?). When it looked like the Medicare Modernization Act wasn't going to pass in 2003, he bent the House rules to extend the time to vote as long as necessary to shake down and muscle those in his caucus who were wary of voting on what is a seriously flawed bill. Position, technique, and winning, always winning. Only winning.

Case Study No. 2: Bernie Ebbers. Another high school coach that ascended to a position of power and then abused it is recently convicted Woldcom CEO Bernie Ebbers. Prior to becoming the CEO of Worldcom, Ebbers used to coach high school basketball. And when defending himself against fraud allegations, he employeed what I like to refer to as the "Jeff Van Gundy defense." Jeff Van Gundy is the coach of the Houston Rockets, a great coach even though he looks like he probably can't dribble a basketball.

Ebbers claimed he didn't know how to actually play the accounting "game." He claimed he did not know any of the techniques and fictions his accounts used to cook the Worldcom books. He just directed people to do their job and motivated the sales force; according to Ebbers his subordinates actually engaged in the fraudulent activity.

Even if you buy into this fiction, like all the problematic CEOs in the 90s, Ebbers would demand that his company hit certain numbers. If the sales or revenue weren't there, what to do. CEOs like Ebbers said: I don't care how you do it, hit the numbers. Accounting is an art. Make it pretty, Coach said. Did these CEOs know exactly how the numbers were manipulated?

The real question is: does it matter? Let's go back to the Van Gundy defense. Ebbers basically told his team, "win the game or else you are off the team. " Coach has a big bonus tied to making the playoffs. Coach structures players salaries so that there is a big payoff for them if coach wins. Others are betting on the team based on what Coach has promised. More bettors, more bonus for Coach.

He knew his team could not win unless it did something illegal, like pulling a Gillooly and busting knees. He sees his team win, even though it shouldn't have. Knees were clearly busted. Coach gets his bonus. Coach Ebbers later says, "But, I didn't know they were using concealed lead pipes and busting knees to win." Oh, well if you put it that way...

The knees didn't have to be broken. Sometimes you are supposed to just play and maybe just lose. Coach Ebbers is rightly looking at up to 85 years behind bars.


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