By now you’ve all seen the horrible actions — the physical and verbal abuse — administered by former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice against his players.
The video, first aired by ESPN and then spread virally around the nation, caused quite an uproar because of the sheer extent of the abuse, which was shown vividly on the recording. The video, which reportedly was a compilation of Rice’s actions in practices since 2010, made it to the hands of popular Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti in November.
Pernetti made the president of the university aware of the tape at that time, but the president chose not to view it. The university suspended Rice for three games but did not fire him. Fast-forward four-plus months. The video was given to, and subsequently aired on, ESPN by the same former basketball employee who initially shared it with the athletic director.
In a mere few days, Rice was fired and Pernetti was let go; however, the president remains at the helm of the university, tasked with managing a fragile reputation.
In hindsight and upon further review, it’s easy to see how Rutgers screwed up, trying to move on late last year after levying punishment on Rice. But how could so many smart individuals — at minimum the president and athletic director — be blind to the eventual consequences of their inaction at the time? What didn’t they do in November that could have negated what just exploded in plain view in the public domain?
And, aside from firing Rice when they first learned of his extreme behavior, what else could they have done to prevent what eventually transpired?
Let’s review, and then take a look at how these lessons apply to your roles as legal counselors and more to your organization or clients.
First, by apparently not sharing the video or its details with other important stakeholders who help govern or lead Rutgers University — namely, the board of directors and Governor Chris Christie’s administration — the athletic director and president figuratively kept their heads in the sand hoping that their minor punishment — a three-game suspension of Rice — would be sufficient to deal with the matter. By relying solely on themselves to be judge, jury and executioner in such a volatile situation, they were unable to look at the issue for what it really was: a burgeoning crisis.
Had they brought in representatives from the board of directors and notified state Department of Education officials in New Jersey, the likelihood that the problem would have escalated precipitously would have been minimized. They took a calculated risk that the incidents would blow over — a risk that we now know was a bad bet.
The lesson is that when we advise our clients, whether in-house or external, be sure to take into account the many opinions and ideas from your important organizational leaders who have significant stakes in the outcome. Hearing from different voices can help us make better, more informed decisions.
Second, Rutgers’ athletic director and president ignored the many warning signs of the current crisis. Reportedly there are videos, anecdotes and other pieces of evidence that Rice mistreated his players on the court that harken back more than a year. We do not know if any actions were taken or threatened against Rice at any of these times. We also do not know if leaders at Rutgers prepared for any fallout that could have emerged were the behavior to go public.
For example, was there an internal committee formed of representatives from the athletic department, board of directors, student affairs and human resources? These are just four departments or interests that could have weighed in on Rice’s behavior.
If they agreed that the exhibited behavior was inappropriate, but did not constitute a fireable offense, they could have prepared for any blowback by developing some standby statements for use if questioned by the press and a designated spokesperson in the case of a leak.
Additionally, the committee could have made recommendations for steps Rice could take to prevent what would become continued inexcusable behavior and a protocol for assessing how he was complying with such. For attorneys and other advisers, the lesson is you ignore warning signs at your own organization’s (or client’s) peril.
In every crisis that we read about or watch unfold, you can find warning signs that signaled trouble. For Carnival Cruise Lines, many of their ships had been in fragile operational conditions and it appears that they decided not to invest in fixing them up before real trouble sank their reputation.
Other examples include the School District of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which both in some regard did not adequately plan for the end of the short-lived federal stimulus funding that helped each get through awful economic times, thus respectively keeping schools open and running and reimbursing the state for health care spending to help the working poor. The results were crises that led to the planned closure of 29 public schools and cuts in health care funding.
While no one is completely immune to crises, no organization that heeds the warning signs and prepares proactively to stem issues or incidents has to suffer from a crisis of the magnitude Rutgers is currently facing. It’s our job as trusted counselors to serve as the eyes, ears and noses who look, listen and sniff around so that those who could ultimately pay the price for inaction aren’t subjects of the next 60 Minutes, Dateline or 20/20 exclusive.
Jeff Jubelirer is the principal of Jubelirer Strategies. He leads the development and execution of all aspects of its clients’ strategic communications programs, including media relations, issue and crisis management, and community relations. He also is an adjunct professor in crisis communication at Temple University.