Readers of this blog know that I’ve weighed in from time to time to discuss integrity lapses in sports. I think these moments are interesting and relevant to our work for a number of reasons. First, they are very public moments in which integrity, or the lack of it, has been thrust into the center of popular culture. Secondly, they have a sort of logic that we see play out in higher education (more on this in a minute). Lastly, no matter how tweedy higher education gets, the reality is that many of our students, faculty, and leaders engage with the sports industry at some point in their lives (whether as players, coaches, fans, or as leaders of athletics programs that intersect with our mission at the university).

The most recent example comes to us from the University of Michigan, where the coaching staff of its highly successful football program has been accused of maintaining a long-running sign-stealing program. In its simplest form, a program employee allegedly traveled to opponents’ stadiums and attended games for the purpose of intercepting and decoding the signs that the coaching staff sends to the players on the field during a game. The Michigan staff then, allegedly, used that knowledge to predict which plays were being called in their matchups with those teams. You can read about it more in-depth here. Beyond being an obvious violation of sportsmanship and the spirit of fair competition, the specter of impropriety in a billion dollar industry is unwelcome at a moment that the economics of collegiate athletics are rapidly transforming the industry.

But why should higher education care? As I have written about in previous pieces, cheating in sports is not new or, apparently, slowing down. Perpetrators of these scandals are rarely punished severely, though this latest instance has already led to the suspension of Michigan’s high profile head coach, Jim Harbaugh, from the sidelines. More consequences may be forthcoming, but regardless, it isn’t immediately clear how it impacts the work we do.

I think we would do well to pay attention to these moments. They teach us the importance of draining our classrooms of the adversarial relationship that can exist between students and the faculty teaching them. At its heart, athletics is about competition and in that culture almost anything is justified if it produces a competitive advantage. We have seen this sentiment come to our classrooms. It is a well-documented concern that, as class sizes grow larger, faculty see more attempts to game the course for a better grade, often leading to academic misconduct incidents. These incidents occur because the student doesn’t see the faculty member as a teacher, but as an adversary. They see cheating not as a lapse in integrity, but as a way of getting ahead, “winning” the class, or maximizing their efficiency.

What can faculty and integrity professionals do? Mostly we can do more of what many of us are already doing: communicating the value of authentic engagement with academic work, building relationships with students, promoting academic integrity as a campus norm, and working with students to serve as peer mentors who share messages that disrupt this idea of a classroom as a competition and a faculty member as an adversary. I also think it’s just important to note that these scandals keep happening because that impulse is very human, especially when the stakes are high: whether winning the big game or acing the big test.