The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons from OSU’s Football Scandal

Update: December 21, 2011: The NCAA Committee on Infractions ended its investigation of OSU 12/20/11 and cited OSU for “failure to monitor.” Sanctions include a one-year bowl ban and losing nine scholarships over the next three years. OSU Athletic Director responded, “We are surprised and disappointed with the NCAA’s decision.” OSU indicated it would not appeal.

Ohio State University (OSU) President Gordon Gee took a public stand in full support of his immensely popular, and generally victorious, football coach when Jim Tressel covered up NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) violations and lied to Gee and others. Gee resisted calls for Tressel’s resignation for months, amid ongoing questions and criticism about why OSU would tolerate Tressel’s behavior.

Gee, while acknowledging Tressel made mistakes, answered critics saying he believed in looking at the “body of work” of an individual. Finally, Tressel resigned over Memorial Day weekend, just as an article  in Sports Illustrated hit the newsstand, accusing Tressel of additional misconduct.

The reality is that in any organization a trusted member of the team can lie to the CEO and put him or her, as well as the institution, at risk. Using OSU’s football scandal as context, here are five questions useful for leaders to consider in crisis planning well before a problem develops.

What role, if any, should the CEO have in the investigation of a “friend” or extremely visible, popular figure accused of wrong doing where trustees/directors have a keen interest in the outcome?

Gee made the decision to get personally involved and it backfired, as indeed it often will when leaders get involved in investigations. Gee met with Tressel for three hours in the President’s house in January 2011 when he learned Tressel had lied. Gee, who has a law degree, been president of five universities (including OSU twice) and has sat on several corporate boards, is arguably savvier than most. Nonetheless, his involvement didn’t protect OSU’s reputation. When it became evident months later there was more Tressel baggage, both Gee and OSU took another reputation hit.

How does a CEO best serve as the standard-bearer for an institution’s reputation when a scandal occurs?

Many CEOs, like Gordon Gee, give a human face to an organization’s brand by their accessibility to stakeholders, including media. However in a crisis, determining the balance between the polarities of “no comment” and taking sides is a fundamental test of leadership. When Gee aligned early with the revered coach, in spite of his lying, saying he was proud to call the coach his friend, Gee mistakenly believed he knew all there was to know. That miscalculation harmed OSU as well as Gee’s credibility. Too late to reign in Tressel’s larger than life status, accorded him by Gee and others because of his winning record, reputation, by default, was defined by a fallen coach.

How does a CEO reinforce that fairness and consistency are part of the culture?

Gee talked about subscribing to a person’s “body of work” – citing Tressel’s ten years of winning seasons, molding football players, his leadership in fundraising for campus buildings, as well as visiting the troops in Iraq. But body of work is subjective. Unlike the criteria used by Ethics and Compliance operations to address misconduct, it can be subject to political and personal considerations the more high-profile an offender. The OSU colleges have honor codes that encourage the highest standards of personal, academic and professional conduct. When a coach or any senior leader violates those standards it is a teachable moment. Making allowances for misconduct by a  leader weakens a belief that the code matters.

Is the CEO willing to have an ongoing role actively supporting ethics and compliance in the organization and if so, what will it look like?

Regarding ethics, it is a question of intentionality. CEOs have the opportunity in direct and indirect ways to reinforce an organization’s code of conduct and values by their actions, what they say, and how they lead. It is that simple.

Gee observed in an interview that no matter how good compliance procedures are, someone can still get around them. Nonetheless, OSU is revamping its compliance and crisis operation. However, the Achilles heel in any compliance operation is the degree to which a leader is willing to get involved. Gee said he sent a signal he didn’t want to be bothered. “None of us want to hear bad news,” he said. “We hear what we want to hear. It’s not just about people being forthcoming. It’s about us being receptive, and I start with myself.”

How would the CEO answer the question what we really want the institution to be known for?

Generally a crisis is a time when an organization talks about what it stands for; if it has fallen short, how it will regain trust. OSU held a press conference when the story broke that Tressel had lied. The athletic director, Tressel and Gee each spoke. While Gee’s remarks made reference to “integrity” and “character,” they were used to praise Tressel’s program. How Gee participated substantiated that OSU stands for football.

A crisis also reveals what a leader is willing to stand for.  Gee talked about a president having three bullets; he implied he wasn’t willing to use one of them to fire Tressel who had friends on the board. But consider if he had fired him in January. A worse case scenario? OSU would have lost the Sugar Bowl. Gee would have faced alumnae outrage.

As it happened, given the NCAA violations, OSU’s Sugar Bowl victory was vacated, as was the 2010 championship season. What did OSU gain by standing by Tressel?

The Tressel scandal is less about damage control and more about the reality that how an institution responds to a crisis gives definition to who it is. The real potential for Monday morning quarterbacking here is whether OSU and Gee liked the answer.

Gael O’Brien      September 8, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine


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