A Crack in the Wall…Finally!

The much-criticized (and deservedly so) Penn State board of trustees has an official policy of forced silence and feigned solidarity following controversial votes. Once the BOT decides an issue, a wall of silence is erected and no dissenting voices are permitted, no matter how wrong-headed a decision may be.

That is why the board, as a group, has remained largely silent on the 2011 rush to judgment that fired Joe Paterno without any actual evidence of wrongdoing or affording him any opportunity to defend himself; naively embraced without question the accuracy-challenged report of Louis Freeh; and foolishly accepted the blindfold and cigarette offered by Mark Emmert and his NCAA henchmen, who, without any independent investigation of their own, handed down the most draconian sanctions ever issued by that sports authority in their woefully transparent attempt to kill Penn State’s storied football program.

Until now.

Former Penn State Trustee Al Clemens

Former Penn State Trustee Al Clemens

Late last week, Al Clemens, who has served for 18 years as a member of the Penn State BOT, very publicly resigned, and in the process leveled a broadside at his fellow board members, and especially its feckless leadership. Most pointedly, he apologized for the role he played in allowing the travesty to unfold. In his mea culpa, Mr. Clemens said it was time for “new leadership to step forward.”

He is right.

In his resignation speech, Mr. Clemens cited the “hastily called (board) meeting” in which “I and my fellow Trustees, voted to fire Joe Paterno. We had little advance notice or opportunity to discuss and consider the complex issues we faced. After 61 years of exemplary service, Coach Paterno was given no chance to respond. That was a mistake. I will always regret that my name is attached to that rush to injustice.”

I detailed much of this in my most recent book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, which contains a critical chapter on the Penn State crisis and enumerates the many avoidable blunders made by the board. The “rush to injustice” Mr. Clemens now confesses to was caused by an inability to counter the media frenzy, and a failed leadership incapable of managing a crisis of this magnitude. As I wrote in that chapter, at no time did the board have anyone advising them who was qualified and experienced in crisis management, and the sad results speak for themselves. Crisis management expertise and professionalism, not high-priced PR folderol, would have certainly yielded a better outcome.

Mr. Clemens also said, “Hiring Louis Freeh and the tacit acceptance of his questionable conclusions, without review, along with his broad criticism of our Penn State culture was yet another mistake. In joining the Paterno family and others in their suit against the NCAA, I have distanced myself from the Board on this issue.”

While I applaud Mr. Clemens’ better-late-than-never action, I take exception to his liberal use of the phrase “tacit acceptance” in the previous paragraph.

As I detailed in my book, mere hours after Mr. Freeh’s press conference and the release of his report, the leadership of Penn State and its board said that “the school accepted Freeh’s report unconditionally, all of the allegations it contained, and the more than 100 recommendations it proposed.” There is nothing tacit about that.

Sadly, by the time these issues are resolved, sanctions banning bowl game appearances and a significant loss of scholarships will be moot. But vacating 111 hard-earned victories on the gridiron from the record books penalizes no one but hundreds of innocent student athletes over a 13-year span. It was a mean-spirited knifing by a gang of NCAA muggers and should be overturned without further delay.

As for Joe Paterno, even if his reputation and his record are restored, his lasting image will forever be tarnished by the cowardly actions of a weak and frightened board of trustees.

This is the same board that spent $800,000 recently to come up with a new “brand” – “Penn State Lives Here” – overlooking the fact that (a) the so-called brand is vacuous and meaningless, (b) was already in wide use by others, including ESPN’s “College Football Lives Here” media campaign, © does nothing to address the underlying crisis, and (d) there was absolutely wrong with the existing brand in the first place.

Penn State does not need a new brand; it needs a new board.

It is time for other members of the board to stand up and do the right thing. Mr. Clemens has shown you how.