THE INC. LIFE

What Business Leaders Can Learn From the Ole Miss Football Scandal

Communications stumbles take a sex scandal from bad to worse.

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BY Sam Jefferies - 09 Aug 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Football is religion in Mississippi. Also known as the birthplace of Brett Favre and the cradle of the Manning family, it's a place where Saturdays are sacred and college ball is king. It's drawn Michael Oher of Blind Side fame to its stadiums and produced Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, arguably two of the best to ever play their position in pro football history, respectively. And right now, as the countdown clock to college football ticks on, scandal is wracking the state's most storied athletic program.

When media scrutiny or a reputation challenge hits your business, it may be tempting to pass the buck, blaming your predecessors or other outside forces for the mess you're in. At times, this is a viable strategy - it can buy you time or create a villain from which to distance yourself and your company. Politicians do it all the time, and so do large companies who are willing to throw their suppliers under the bus for a quick PR win.

But the strategy carries inherent risks, as the University of Mississippi found out this summer.

College football, as an industry, reported $5.6 billion in revenue in 2015, larger than the gross domestic product of some African nations. It is undeniably a big business, as TV contracts, lucrative coaching salaries, and the national spotlight all swirl around the universities that make up the "power five" conferences. As Quartz has noted, "Revenues for the biggest programs now run into the hundreds of millions of dollars a year." There are certainly stories of success to be learned from the collegiate gridiron system, but there are also cautionary tales. And that's where Ole Miss comes in.

Down in Mississippi

A traditional bottom dweller of the powerful Southeastern Conference, or SEC, Ole Miss football has seen a resurgence over the past five years. Recruiting top talent, as with any successful enterprise, was at the core of this turnaround. All of this culminated in two upsets over the might University of Alabama, a Cinderella story almost too good to be true.

To no one's surprise, the NCAA investigated and alleged that "university employees and/or affiliated 'boosters' had arranged sweetheart car loans for players, distributed cash and other "impermissible benefits" of value, and in one case helped recruits cheat on their ACTs."

Instead of owning up to the violations (which are not that uncommon in today's cash-steeped college programs), the school decided to play the blame game in public, claiming that all of the transgressions had occurred under former coach Houston Nutt.

Nutt, understandably furious, sued the school for defamation. And that's where things really get good.

Scandal 2.0

In the process of legal discovery that unfolded within the defamation lawsuit, investigators found a call to an escort service from the university phone of Hugh Freeze, the coach that had replaced Nutt at the helm of the Ole Miss program. University officials dug deeper and found a pattern of these calls, solicitations for prostitution from a taxpayer-funded phone which violated the school's code of conduct.

Coach Freeze, who initially claimed the call was a misdeal, was quickly forced to resign. The fallout is significant - head coach and main recruiter suddenly gone from a major program on the rise. None of this would have come out (and least not in this sudden, public form) if Ole Miss hadn't tried to blame all of its recruiting violations on their old coach.

Applying or avoiding the Hugh Freeze playbook in the business world

So why does this matter for business leaders? The potent mix of football, call girls and defamation law suits may be unique to the Magnolia State (for now) but the risk/reward calculation of the blame game is not.

Passing the buck can damage your reputation as a stand-up company which accepts responsibility and seeks solutions, not excuses. It can't be used often-- your customers and clients may quickly tire of hearing it. And while it might be convenient in the short term, it may expose your business to longer-term problems that can cripple your public image or bury you in legal fees and the Pandora's Box of litigation. Or, if you're a football coach in Mississippi, it might even reveal the calls you made to an escort service from your university cell phone.

All of these possibilities should be considered before you move publicly to pass blame on others. The risks of further discovery through litigation or media investigations are real, and they can turn a reputational distraction into a full blown disaster played out in ugly, public fashion.

It's tempting to play the blame card when crisis strikes-- just be aware of what you're getting in to when you do.