Ethics Quiz: The Purloined Championship Team

Within hours of winning a Final Four national championship, a triumphant college coach not only jumped ship and went to another university, the coach took the entire championship squad.

Nobody went nuts about this over at ESPN, however, because the championship was in chess.

Texas Tech chess coach Susan Polgar took her entire all-star squad of seven chess grandmasters from Texas Tech to private Webster University in suburban St. Louis, home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the U.S. national championships. Polgar is unapologetic for gutting the Texas Tech elite chess program that she built there beginning in 2007 . “The program grew rapidly, and Texas Tech wasn’t ready to grow with the speed of the program. St. Louis today is the center of chess in America. It just seemed like a perfect fit.”

I’m sure it is, but that leads to your Ethics Quiz: Is it ethical for a coach to take a school’s championship team with her when she accepts a position elsewhere?

My view is no—it is not ethical. It is extremely disloyal and unfair. If Polgar spent any time persuading the team members to move to Webster while she was still under contract to Texas Tech—and does anybody think she didn’t?—-that was clearly unethical. That was acting against the school’s interest while being paid by the school; it is indefensible.

It is also wrong for her to poach the team of her former employer after she moved to Webster. Texas Tech invested money in the chess program, and it was developed on the Texas Tech campus. She should build a new program at Webster, not steal her old one. This is Golden Rule territory. Were the Texas Tech players part of her deal with Webster University? If so, Webster induced her to behave unethically, which is itself wrong. Polgar’s conduct smacks of unapologetic ingratitude. “Thanks for giving me a chance, Texas Tech, and now that I’ve made the most of it, I’m kicking you in the teeth without any regrets.

Nice.

If the chess whizzes from Texas Tech, on their own initiative and without encouragement from Polgar, decided to follow their ex-leader to St. Louis, that would be their choice, and no ethical breaches would be involved. This does not appear to be what occurred, however. As for those whose acceptance of Polgar’s conduct is based on the fact that her team’s championship was in chess and not basketball, I have to ask:

Why should that make a difference?

[Without Jacob Hanson, I would have missed this story entirely.]

6 Comments

Filed under Character, Environment

6 responses to “Ethics Quiz: The Purloined Championship Team

  1. Well, here’s my question:

    Did the students go through the standard application process for Webster University, or were they allowed to circumvent those processes? If application processes were circumvented, is that fair to other applicants? Is it standard practice? Doesn’t it amount to “line-jumping”?

  2. Eeyoure

    I was going to ask about scholarship money involved, until I read the article. This looks like a case of money talking. I do think it is unethical for a coach to arrange for players to jump with the coach to another school. I think it is also unethical for players to jump schools regardless of whether they are trailing after a favored coach, if their first school is carrying them on a scholarship. In my book, doing that is biting a hand that has fed you. Plus, it’s a selfish deprivation of someone else’s scholarship opportunity, to the loss of both the deprived person and the school.

  3. Dwayne N. Zechman

    If the chess whizzes from Texas Tech, on their own initiative and without encouragement from Polgar, decided to follow their ex-leader to St. Louis, that would be their choice, and no ethical breaches would be involved.
    This premise is a complete paradox–it disproves itself. Why? Because it is predicated on the assumption that a champion-level chess teacher was not thinking ahead.

    You may as well try to convince me that TGT spent the day praying.

    –Dwayne

  4. This Guy

    Before I begin, I freely admit that I’m looking at the sitaution through the lens of the more popular brands of intercollegiate competition.
    There may be a consideration that only particularly avid fans of the aforementioned can see.

    Polgar mentioned specifically that Texas Tech “wasn’t ready to grow with the speed of the program”. In college sports, a coach asked to come aboard as a “program-builder” is often given the informal promise that success will be followed by upgrades to the program’s facilities. (I confess that I have no idea what sort of facilities a chess program would need, but the linked sotry suggests they’re waiting for her at Webster, so I’ll presume they exist.) If such an informal agreement occurred between Texas Tech and Polgar and was not kept by the former, I don’t see any reason that Polgar isn’t entitled to the portion of the Texas Tech chess program for which she’s responsible, namely the “chess program” part. While the existence of such an agreement is speculation, the fact that the Texas Tech administration fired its most recent former football coach the day before a significant bonus was due suggests that it doesn’t follow up on promises.

    I’d also like to point out that I see absolutely nothing wrong with the actions of the chess team. “Student”-“athletes” (quotation marks for both sides of the comparison) are the most fungible commodity on campus; the school could revoke their scholarships in favor of a more promising prospect or drop the program entirely at almost any time with almost no consequences, yet their commitment is rock-solid?

    • “I don’t see any reason that Polgar isn’t entitled to the portion of the Texas Tech chess program for which she’s responsible, namely the “chess program” part.”

      I sure do. This goes too far, by a lot. It was the school’s students, the school’s fund, the school’s facilities, the school’s participation in the competition that also built the program: Polgar didn’t own it. She had a right to leave when the ” informal” promises weren’t kept. Informal promises are informal by agreement of both parties, who mutually acknowledge that circumstances beyond anyone’s control may make keeping the promises impossible. There been a recession, as I’m sure you noticed; I’m sure the school had to fight to keep funding any chess program. Polgar has no ethical right to punish the school because she didn’t get everything she expected or wanted. She can quit. That’s her choice. Harming the school or the program in any other way is wrong.

  5. Michael

    Just to play Devil’s advocate here, this doesn’t look that outrageous from a student-pupil relationship level. It is quite common for a faculty member who leaves for another school to take their students with them. Students are studying under a professor, they really aren’t studying at a school. A faculty member who leaves and strands their former students at the old institution is not looked upon kindly. This is not an athletic program, this is a chess group. It is not a ‘sport’ and that is why she was able to do what she did. If you look at chess as more of an academic pursuit than an athletic event, this does not look unethical at all. Polgar went to an institution where her talents were better valued and she was caring enough to bring her students with her and provide them with scholarships at the new institution (that they didn’t have at the old one).

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