NCAA Compliance Meeting for Incoming Student-Athletes

September 2, 2014
C. L. Max Nikias

Good morning!  I’m delighted to be here, and to personally welcome you all to the Trojan Family.  Your time at USC is going to be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life, an experience that will indeed last a lifetime.  Once you become a Trojan, you are a Trojan for life.

Today I also want to affirm USC’s commitment to sportsmanship, embodied in the NCAA’s rules and regulations.  They represent the guidelines to which we and our competitors have agreed to abide.  They represent the foundation of sportsmanship and the foundation of our own efforts to reach greatness.

But first, I’d like to begin by thanking our athletic director.  One of the high points of my time as USC president has been the opportunity to work alongside Pat Haden.  I am grateful for how he took on this challenging assignment, at a particularly challenging time.

Years from now, people will be singing the praises of Pat Haden for his patient and principled and firm leadership—for how he brought USC Athletics through an important era of renewal, even as intercollegiate athletics themselves are going through a transformation nationally.

I also want to thank Dave Roberts, our vice president for compliance, and Clare Pastore, our Faculty Athletic Representative, for their incredible leadership, wisdom, and hard work.  They have our student-athletes on course for the greatest success in life.  But they also understand that we are in a sensitive position.

Even while the NCAA is undergoing dramatic changes, any new infractions here could be seen as repeat violations that would bring severe punishment to our programs.  So even a minor, debatable, unintentional violation by anyone associated with USC could take our destiny out of our own hands, and place it in the hands of others.

We must do our best to keep this from happening.  While the rules may be evolving, let ourselves continue to be guided by timeless codes of honor.  Protect your team, and expect them to protect one another, rather than to look out for their individual interests.  Avoid making serious mistakes, and avoid making silly mistakes.

At USC, we speak of winning with integrity.  Integritas was a Latin term.  It stood for wholeness, for completeness.  Only something that was whole and complete could be seen as good and pure.

Let me tell you how special you are.  Last year we received 53,000 applications for the 2,700 seats in our freshman class.  The applicants were extraordinary—some of the best in America.  It’s a reminder that it is very hard to become a student at the University of Southern California, and you are now one of them.

But it is even harder—much harder—to be a student-athlete at USC.  I know you must make sacrifices that ordinary students do not make.  Sacrifices that athletes elsewhere do not make.  I understand that.  I deeply appreciate that.

But I know that this is for a reason: Because you are not ordinary people.  You are Trojan student-athletes, who have been marked out for greatness.  We will be here for you, to help you reach greatness.

In this regard, your coaches are your teachers, just like the professors in the classroom.  All of them have been instructed to teach discipline and character to you.

Why?  Because “Character is destiny.”  A man or woman’s character is what inevitably shapes the course of her life.  Through the centuries, this timeless truth has been reaffirmed by figures from Pericles to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Vince Lombardi.

You probably know that USC has produced more Olympians than any other school in the world.  If USC competed as a separate nation, the Trojan Nation, our 288 all-time Summer Olympics medals would rank 16th most in the world, while our 135 gold medals would rank 12th.

I love this link to the great Olympics of antiquity.  Those games celebrated excellence in mind and body and spirit.  Excellence in all things!  Like no other university community in America, the USC Trojans embody that ideal here in our day.

The ancient Greeks took this Olympic competition more seriously than life itself.  Even if ancient Greek nation-states were at war, they were expected to honor a truce, allowing athletes to travel freely to the games.

Do you know why some of the decisive battles in the history of Western civilization, like Marathon and Salamis, were fought in the month of September?  Because foreign armies knew the Greeks would be obsessed with the Olympics in August.  So invading armies tried to use that timing to their personal advantage.

From those first Olympics, I would like to offer to some observations about honor and sportsmanship.  In the original Olympic games, the winner received not a medal but a simple wreath made of a humble olive branch—just an ordinary and common object.

But that ordinary and common object had been infused with special significance:  It represented honor, which was worth more than silver or gold.  This too shocked outsiders, who wondered, “What sort of people compete so passionately for honor, rather than for money or fame?”  The answer is that it was the kind of people who would go on to provide the foundation for much of the greatness that we enjoy in today’s world.

There are two contrasting examples of that ancient quest for glory.  First, there is the cautionary tale of a boxer named Eupolus, who was one of the first athletes accused of disgracing the games in 388 B.C.  Eupolus bribed three competitors to let him win, so that he could receive the olive wreath of victory.

But it was taken from him, and he and the other three were all punished.  They paid fines, they were flogged, and they were officially purged from the memory of society.  Society always punishes cheaters and those who break the rules—never do that.

But in contrast there is the powerful example of a young man named Mandrogenes, who excelled in the sport of pankration.  This was an intense combination of boxing and wresting. Mandrogenes would win with honor, but then he would always insist, “The credit goes to my coach, who is my teacher.”  That spirit is the spirit of USC Athletics.

Mandrogenes’ coach once wrote to the young man’s mother about his unceasing, relentless determination in what was sometimes a very deadly sport.  The coach wrote: “If you should hear that your son is dead, believe it.  But if you hear that he is defeated, do not believe it!”

Mandrogenes did “Fight On,” indeed, with all his might, all his being, and all his honor. Always remember to give credit to your coaches.  It doesn’t matter how good you are.  Your coaches are your teachers.  Acknowledge them, and give them credit.

We see that same spirit today, here at USC.  We see it in our athletic director and our coaches.  We see it in the legendary alumni who return here to inspire new generations of student-athletes like yourselves.  And we look forward to seeing it in you when you return, years from now, to inspire and teach the next generation of Trojans.

Bear in mind that, on average, you will live to the age of 90, thanks to medical advances. In other words, most of you here will be alive for 70 years after your USC career is over. Even many of the most successful ones, who will be inducted into Halls of Fame, will be alive for 60 years upon the end of your athletic careers.

So, for USC, everything that we do—everything!—is done with an eye toward who you will be over the long course of your lifetime.  Remember:  Most of your life will come after your playing days.  The crowds will grow silent as you grow older.  Your life will then consist of what you have begun to build here:  good relationships, good education, and above all a good reputation.

Yes, we speak of NCAA “compliance” today, but let us continue speaking of character, which understands compliance, but which rises above compliance.  Compliance is a stumbling block for most people, but it is a stepping stone for those with high character. That is true greatness.  It results from simple, hard work, and from good choices.

I am proud and pleased that you have made some wonderful choices so far:

You did not choose to pursue a degree from an ordinary college.  You chose to have the life-changing experience of an extraordinary university with excellent academic programs.

You did not choose to live in an average city.  You chose to spend your college years in one of the most exciting cities in the world.  You passed up Florida and Alabama and South Bend and Eugene and Nebraska and Palo Alto.  You came here, to the heart of Los Angeles, the most exciting city in the world!

No university in America combines USC’s undisputed commitment to championship athletics with excellent academics.  No one else offers USC’s combination of quality and location, and worldwide alumni network and alumni life, and intellectual and social and cultural variety. Forget whoever claims to be the gold standard for academics and athletics combined: USC is building the platinum standard.

Remember: You are on the big stage now, under the bright, wonderful spotlight of Los Angeles.  How you carry yourself will bring honor to your mothers and your fathers.  You don’t lie, as the truth always comes out.  How you compete will be watched by all.  How you excel will inspire children around the country.

And it will strengthen those lifelong bonds that connect 300,000 members of the Trojan Family around the world.

So make it your non-negotiable goal to make the very most of these coming years.  Make your experience here something that can last through all the decades of your long life. Give your Trojan Family your best, and we will give you our best, for the rest of your life.

Welcome again to this Trojan Family, thank you—and Fight On, always!