We are in the midst of the single greatest sports-related communications crisis since OJ Simpson. And while nobody died in this one, I can’t argue if you think this one is worse.
From a public relations standpoint, what did we learn from the unthinkable Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal and the wretched Penn State cover-up?
A lot of things.
1) Don’t Trust ANYBODY. This is so sad. Legendary football coach Joe Paterno’s image was everything that was right about sports. Sadly, that era is over. The old saying reads that “the cover-up is usually worse than the scandal.” In some ways, I feel like that applies here. A well-respected institution staffed with highly-regarded adults allowed sexual felonies against children to go unreported and unpunished. If we can no longer trust the character of JoePa, what can we trust?
2) You Don’t Choose Your Legacy. In a letter he supposedly wrote after his dismissal from the school and before his passing, Paterno said that this scandal shouldn’t tarnish the school’s image.
He wrote: ”This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one. It is not an academic scandal and does not in any way tarnish the hard-earned and well-deserved academic reputation of Penn State.”
A few points:
- Many instances of abuse happened by a member of the football program’s leadership (active and emeritus) on football grounds. And the football coach knew about it and did very little. That sounds like a football scandal to me.
- The same people who failed to handle this matter appropriately are the ones who lead the academics of the university. True, chemistry professors and English teaching assistants didn’t commit the crimes, but these instances happened over several years on university grounds. If I’m a parent of a soon-to-be college student, I’d have to think long and hard about including Penn State in the consideration set.
Penn State and Joe Paterno (and Sandusky, for that matter) don’t get to choose what does and doesn’t tarnish the legacy of the school. We do. The public, the media. Right now, it’s tarnished. And it will likely take a LOT of polish to restore the shine.
3) How Far Goodwill Goes. A lifetime of charity, mentorship and a clean image does not compensate for enabling a child predator. End of story. One of the most celebrated individuals in sports history is literally having his name taken off buildings and may even have a statue knocked down. And these examples come from his partners, colleagues and friends.
The takeaway? No matter who you are, what you do, who you know or what influence you may or may not have, you still have to do the right thing. Especially regarding innocent children being taken advantage of.
Even if it’s a longtime friend and employee who’s involved.