By Steven Fink
I was asked to write a brief review of milestone events in 2014, as I saw them, in the still going strong Penn State/Jerry Sandusky crisis. But first, let’s define our terms: A 17-person majority of the board of trustees would have you believe the crisis is over and it’s time to “move on.” Those individuals are naive and they are wrong. Worse, they are wrong at the top of their lungs. Moreover, they are the ones perpetuating the ongoing crisis, rather than doing anything proactively to resolve it.
Let me be clear: in the mid-80s – nearly three decades ago – I wrote Crisis Management: Planning for the Inevitable, the first book ever written on crisis management. It remains to this day the most widely read book on the subject. In it, I outlined the four separate and distinct phases of what I termed the Anatomy of a Crisis. Uninformed folks might have you believe that the school’s “crisis” began in November 2011, with the grand jury presentment, and ended soon thereafter. Far from it. That was merely the Acute Phase of the crisis – the phase when chaos and turmoil reign supreme. When that second phase ended, the University entered the third phase: the Chronic Phase. In this – generally the longest of the four stages – we encounter court actions (e.g., the Sandusky trial) newspaper exposes, investigations (e.g., the Freeh Report, the Thornburgh Report), mea culpas (e.g., board member Al Clemens public apology for his role in the rush to judgment), firings, promotions, course corrections, etc. This is where we remain mired today. Why? Generally because of the 17 recalcitrant BOT members who refuse to open the door and let the truth come out.
Looking back through 2014, I was surprised to see that I had written ten blog posts on this crisis and the NCAA’s overreaching power plays. (You can read them all at TheCrisisBlog.tumblr.com). The one that generated the biggest response was titled “17 Feathers for Penn State Board.” It was a reference to an old book by British author A.E.W. Mason, having to do with publicly naming a person a coward by presenting that individual with a white feather of shame. When the nine alumni-elected members of the board introduced a resolution to reopen the Freeh Report and who-knows-how-many-“sealed-documents” to finally get to the truth – the real truth – the 17 nay-sayers defeated the motion unanimously. For that I publicly labeled them all as cowards, and suggested they each receive white feathers.
Then, more recently, at what was supposed to be a specially called BOT meeting to discuss reopening the Freeh Report and getting a much-needed look at Freeh’s so-called “secret documents,” the 17 head-in-the-sand members, acting in unison as a group, boycotted the meeting entirely. What are they, children? What are they afraid of? The truth? Lemme break it down for you: when one person boycotts an event, you could make a reasonable argument that it was done because of a strong philosophical difference of opinion. But when the entire group of 17 intransigent trustees fails to appear, it is clear they are lemmings that have lost their ability for independent thought and reason. Someone is calling the shots and these 17 white feather candidates are mindlessly jerking along on puppet strings.
In my career, I have served on a number of boards, advised boards immersed in various crises, and currently chair the board of a private,non-profit charitable foundation. When a subject is presented with which I disagree, the last place I want to be is absent. No, I want to be there to express my opinions and maybe persuade some on the other side of the issue over to my side. To intentionally boycott a meeting because you’re afraid of the outcome of a vote is petulant and juvenile.
Consider: during this year, Judge Freeh tried to throw up as many legal road blocks as he could to keep his work secret, even in the face of evidence that he was in regular communication with the NCAA all during his investigation. How does this qualify as an “independent” report? Do I hear a growing chorus of “collusion”? But the board remained mute and did not support the actions to reopen the report and objectively examine its findings. If you’re trying to get to the bottom of a report that has been widely labeled as “fact-challenged” and “error-filled,” wouldn’t you want to see all the evidence to learn the truth?
Consider: during this year, the NCAA tried to throw up as many legal road blocks as it could to keep their documents private, even after it was revealed in a series of leaked emails that the NCAA bluffed a woefully naïve Penn State board into accepting the most draconian sanctions ever handed down by the sports authority, while suspecting all along that it did not have the jurisdiction to do so. In my most recent book, Crisis Communications, I argued that the events at Penn State were a criminal matter, not an NCAA infraction. If you’re trying to get to the bottom of the matter, wouldn’t you want to see all the evidence and maybe have those sanctions officially repealed and the millions of dollars in monetary fines returned? When the board took steps to block such actions, it put itself in the unimaginable position of opposing legal action that, if successful, would stand to benefit the university in a myriad of ways.
Feel free to disagree with me, but my experience tells me that the only reason most of the sanctions have been lifted early is because the NCAA wants this court case to vanish. In their presentation to the court, they actually argued that the suit was now moot because most of the sanctions have been lifted. That obvious ploy was spotted and quickly shot down by Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Ann Covey. Judge Covey now wants to see if the sanctions were even legal in the first place. (Good for her!) And this challenge to the NCAA’s once impregnable authority is the very last thing the NCAA wants.
In court, the board (on behalf of the university) joined the NCAA. This mind-numbing action defies credulity, and there are only a limited number of plausible explanations why: Either the 17 board members are cowards (as I labeled them previously), they are in cahoots with the NCAA because they are afraid to rock the boat for fear of future actions, or they are just plain obtuse. You can cast your own vote.
But, thankfully, Judge Covey seems hell bent on getting to the truth and she is standing rock solid on this mission.
The NCAA said it was lifting many – but not all – of the sanctions against Penn State because former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, our “monitor,” gave us a gold star on his last report on the university’s compliance. But such moves will still leave the stigma of wrong doing intact. If things go well for the truth seekers, the court case could force the NCAA to acknowledge it was wrong, it had no jurisdiction to impose the sanctions in the first place, and for that reason the sanctions must be removed.
In the midst of this turmoil, the board adopted a new and completely meaningless “brand” for the university: “Penn State Lives Here.” When asked about it at the time, I replied “Penn State doesn’t need a new Brand, it needs a new Board.”
New Year’s Prediction: When the dust settles, as it most likely will this year, it will be time for accounts to be settled, starting with the removal of the most obstreperous board members.
New Year’s Wish: That the board wakes up before it’s too late and gets on the right side of history.
New Year’s Question: Which side will President Eric Barron come down on? He’s in a tough spot, to be sure: He is obedient to the board (who hired and pays him), but he can’t remain blind and mute forever. He asked to review the Freeh Report, which was a good step, but what is he planning to do with it…and when? In trying to answer that pivotal question, it would behoove us to recall that before coming to Penn State he was president of Florida State University – a school that essentially swept under the carpet damning reports and credible evidence that star quarterback, and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, sexually assaulted a coed at the school. So Barron has familiarity with schools taking paths of expediency rather than paths of righteousness. Which path will he walk?
To those who holler into the wind that the crisis is past and let’s move on, I say this: If the crisis had ended in 2012, why are so many people still talking about it and litigating it now? When this phase of the crisis is finally over, the school will enter the fourth and final phase of the crisis: the Resolution Phase.
But, alas, we are a long way from that right now.
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