In the United States, the Jerry Sandusky scandal has gripped college sports unlike any scandal it has ever faced. The story centres on his criminal convictions for sexually assaulting young boys when he was a coach at Penn State and after he retired. The crimes alone were terrible. What made it a crisis for Penn State was that top university officials are alleged to have covered up the crimes. The crisis has led to a severe penalty against Penn State. What has surprised some observers is how quickly the NCAA applied the penalty and how willingly and quickly Penn State accepted the penalty
As one observer noted, the NCAA process would have normally been the following.
Consider what the NCAA did not give Penn State. Normally the association notifies the school that an official inquiry is going to be held. Notice is followed by an investigation and, if the NCAA finds fault, a written explanation of the allegations is given. The school has 90 days to respond, after which it may request more time to respond or schedule a hearing before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions.
Then comes the hearing, which resembles a trial or arbitration hearing. If the school is found to be at fault, it can appeal to the NCAA’s Infractions Appeals Committee. Penn State did not receive 90 days to respond, nor did it get a trial or an opportunity to appeal.
What most observers do not realize is that the NCAA and Penn State (PSU) had mutually reinforcing reasons to apply and accept the penalty quickly. The three reasons relate to their organisational needs as well as their approach to reputation management. The episode has important lessons for reputation management. However, each lesson has risks, which require an organisation to consider their own situation before attempting the same approach.
- PSU avoids the drawn out process where the media cycles continued to rehash the allegations, accusation, and lurid details.
- Both organisations reduce extra or secondary scrutiny on their work.
- Both organisations can move beyond the crisis to the penalty and recovery.
Stop the media cycle I want to get off
Point 1. By settling quickly, the PSU avoided the continuous media cycles that would follow the decision to contest the penalty. The NCAA also avoids a protracted review and appeal process where their work as a regulator, and potential enabler, is under a national media spotlight. The NCAA and PSU, already reeling under the Sandusky allegations would not want the issue to fester. One could see the leaders in both organisations looking at similar high profile cases, like the BP refinery disaster and the Simpson trial to consider the media frenzy that would be generated by 90-120 days between the start of the process and the final ruling from the NCAA.
If the normal protocol had been followed, the hearings and motions about the hearings would have occurred (90 days from July) in the middle of the NCAA football season. Every Saturday when PSU was being shown, the announcers would remark, “Penn State, as you know, is still awaiting the outcome of the child sex abuse scandal”.
The NCAA also understood that every decision, motion, and statement in the process would be put under intense scrutiny. They would be analysed and reviewed by all the media outlets interested in the story. If the problem continued, then the NCAA would become the story. As Taylor Branch’s Atlantic article pointed out, the NCAA does not want to be the story and will do what they need to protect their cartel. They understand what the scrutiny of a child rape scandal would do to their organisation.
By acting quickly, the NCAA avoids the extended media circus. By accepting the penalty, PSU avoids the same media circus. Together, they have taken the scandal off the front page. They have replaced the storyline with something else, which is less problematic. What is now being discussed is whether the penalty was fair and what it means for PSU. We are not seeing media cycles rehashing the allegations, the accusations, and the lurid detail. Instead, we have people looking at secondary issues like picking holes in the Freeh report and considering the possibility of a rebuttal.
The approach is risky as it can raise as many questions as it resolves. However, the risk that the penalty and its acceptance seems problematic is a secondary to the immediate and real problems, let alone risks, created by having the scandal being rehashed in fresh and self-sustaining news cycles.
Where there is smoke, there is fire; so go smokeless
2. Both organisations avoid extra or secondary scrutiny
By resolving the crisis quickly, the story loses its appeal for regulators, the public, and politicians. The story turns to a related secondary issue: the penalty and the recovery. The NCAA and PSU can focus on the future. They shift the story from the past to the future. Neither organisation wants to be subject to a sustained forensic analysis by other regulators or by the press. By reducing the story and changing it, they become a secondary news item. Other headlines dominate the public imagination.
When the public’s imagination moves to other events, the press, regulators, and politicians will change as well. There will be residual amount of scrutiny. However, that scrutiny can be managed within the existing media management framework. To put it in context, undercover FBI agents are not going to the NCAA or Penn State as they are for Wall Street brokerage firms. By avoiding the extra scrutiny, the NCAA and PSU are able to gain some space within which they can resolve the crisis. They also reduce the possibility that secondary scandals can reignite the original scandal. The approach is not without its risks. Secondary scandals could emerge. For example, the university’s accrediting body is reviewing PSU’s academic accreditation. The decision is more routine than a new scandal. Any secondary scrutiny can be addressed differently than the original scandal.
Change the story from the past (crime) to the future (clean up and recovery)
3. Both organisations can move from the crisis to the clean-up. The quick settlement changes the focus. The BP oil spill story lost the public interest once the wells were capped. The story changed to the relatively mundane story of cleaning up the mess. Soon we were hearing about people complaining about their reimbursement payments rather than continual coverage of black oil coating dead birds and sea life.
What can be forgotten in this decision is that the Board has protected the football programme. The Board have shifted the blame and the attention to a dead man’s legacy. The focus is on the penalty and the way the university is handling it and not what caused it. By putting the focus on what Penn State is doing to rebuild its culture and reputation, the Board are moving the public’s attention to the future. The issue is now how they are acting going forward and not what they failed to do in the past.
From a management perspective, the short-term problem is that the Board has used Joe Paterno’s legacy as a shield. However, the fundamental point remains that the Board protected what mattered most to Penn State: its football programme. The Board has done everything it needed to do to protect its most valuable long-term asset: the football programme. Moreover, they have set their decision within a longer-term strategy, which is needed for moving on from the scandal.
Three lessons not without their drawbacks
The PSU Board of Trustees and the NCAA may have made some tactical mistakes in the process. However, they have made strong strategic decisions.
First, they have changed the story so the media cycle is under better control.
Second, they have reduced additional or secondary scrutiny that would have accompanied a protracted story.
Third, they have set forth a vision for the future in which the football programme is protected. The price has been high for PSU, but they can afford it.
A case study in what not to do and what may be best bad choice
We will have to wait for the secondary lawsuits and prosecutions to be resolved before the scandal can be assessed. In the meantime, the scandal remains a good case study of what to avoid, how PSU handled the first crime, and what to consider for reducing the scandal, the NCAA and PSU collaborating and accepting a quick penalty that protects a long-term asset.
***One important warning to this blog is that the Board of Trustees may still doing something silly like contest the penalty and re-open scandal so that it can re-ignite the media firestorm. They should take a page from Paterno’s playbook and stop shouting at the referee. The other team is scoring touchdowns not the referee.
- PSU trustees appeal to NCAA, vow federal suit (espn.go.com)
- Erickson: PSU took deal to avoid ‘death’ (espn.go.com)
- PSU to hold sex abuse conference (cnn.com)
- Penn State Trustee Anthony Lubrano Rants About NCAA Sanctions (pittsburgh.sbnation.com)