Most people outside the USA don’t know much about American style college football. But the sexual abuse scandal wracking Penn State University has some major lessons for crisis management everywhere.
Last month, former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for sexual assault of eight young boys over a 15 year period. Meanwhile Athletics Director Tim Curley and Senior VP Gary Schultz were also indicted, for lying to the grand jury and failure to report the allegations to the proper authorities. University President Graham Spanier was fired, but it was the handling of legendary coach Joe Paterno which made this story national headlines.
Paterno, aged 84, was the most successful and highest profile football coach in US college football history. Penn State even has a PR course entitled “Joe Paterno, Communications and the media.” So when the storm broke he was allowed to announce his retirement at the end of the season. Then, later the same day, he too was sacked, for failing to take proper action about the allegations concerning his closest professional colleague.
Was any of this a surprise? Hardly. The grand jury investigation had been underway for more than two years. But the University appeared to be totally without any effective crisis management plan.
How else to explain the university’s memo to reporters banning non-football questions at the coach’s scheduled press conference. When it became clear this was never going to happen, they cancelled the press conference minutes before it was due. How else to explain the University President issuing an extraordinarily unwise statement expressing his “complete confidence” in the two administrators who had just been indicted.
Then there were the 2,000 students who rampaged across the campus, overturning a TV news van and causing mayhem until riot police arrived on the scene. And were they protesting in support of sexual assault victims? No, they were protesting that their beloved football coach had been sacked. Finally, there was accused offender Sandusky himself, who inexplicably agreed to an ill-fated radio interview on the allegations . . . and admitted: “I shouldn’t have showered with those kids.”
Penn State’s crisis mismanagement will become a case study for what not to do. But it’s also a reminder of how vulnerable large bureaucracies like universities can be. In Australia, in just over 12 months, there have been media reports of a cheating and bribery scandal at a Victorian university; a plagiarism problem at the highest level at a South Australian university; a bribery and corruption debacle at a Western Australian university and an enrolment scandal at a Queensland University. The question has to be, how many of our large organizations will learn from the crisis management disaster at Penn State, and how many will keep on insisting “It can’t happen here.”