Bobby Petrino must have imagined he had life by the short hairs that day, tooling along on his motorcycle, wind whipping through the hair on his unhelmeted head, a gorgeous twenty-five year old chick snuggled up behind him. At 51 years of age, he had control of a vast, much-beloved organization devoted to entertaining legions of football fans with exploits of athletic derring do on the gridiron. Under his charge, the organization had done quite well, compiling a 21-5 record over the last two seasons, and a number five finish in last season’s final poll (losing during the season only to the eventual BCS champion and runners-up, Alabama and LSU). Like practically all the petite-emperor head coaches of major college football programs, Bobby Petrino’s University of Arkansas football program was his fiefdom, and he its lord. Or was, until he rounded a turn a bit too fast on a two-lane highway southeast of Fayetteville, landing he and his voluptuous companion, along with the motorcycle upon which they rode, in a ditch.
Now, he’s lost it all. He was summarily dismissed as coach of the Razorback football team. Presumably he’s got a bit of ‘splainin’ to do at home as well.
No word as to whether his paramour might still love him. But really, was it love, or lust for power, that landed her in that ditch that day?
But what does Bobby Petrino owe us, the general public? Did he have an obligation to live his life according to moral strictures generally held by the public because he coached a major college football team? Is Petrino a “role model” that should be held to a higher standard of behavior, such as New York Jets quarterback and official Christian proselyte and scold, Tim Tebow, asserts is true of all prominent sports figures?
From whence would Petrino’s duty to the general public arise? Petrino is employed by the University of Arkansas, which is a public institution, but only for the state of Arkansas. To be sure, the university receives some funds from the federal government, just as nearly every other major university receives some funds from the federal government, but federal government funds do not pay Petrino’s salary. While money is fungible, its source can still be traced, and Bobby Petrino was being paid $3.5 million per year because the organization he ran made quite a bit more than that, with the possibility that it might make even a good bit more, if he did an exceptional job as its leader. In 2010, Arkansas football turned a $26 million profit for the school, even after paying some $3.5 million of its $48.5 million in revenue to its head coach. No other school department or endeavor even came close. Presumably, it did even better last year.
So, from where does Bobby Petrino’s duty to the general public arise? It doesn’t. He has no more duty to the general public than does any other member of the general public. So long as he obeys the law, he is free to do as he wishes. And taking a motorcycle ride with a paramour that accidentally ends in a ditch is not, prima facie, illegal. It may be immoral, but that’s for those to whom Bobby Petrino owes a moral duty to decide. And he owes no moral duty to the general public.
Petrino owed a contractual duty to his employer, the University of Arkansas, to refrain from behavior that would make the University look bad, and having a wreck on a motorcycle with one’s paramour on the back would surely qualify as making the University look bad, if only because of the disregard people generally express for adulterers, though more than a few of them wouldn’t allow their professed disregard to get in the way of good romp in the sack. But what if nothing of the accident’s details had been publicized, so that the University’s reputation wasn’t tarnished? The legal case that Petrino had violated the so-called “morality clause” of his contract would be substantially weakened. But showing favoritism, as could be implied with Petrino’s hiring of his paramour for a job in his organization, would undoubtedly break a few University rules–which are in all likelihood broken every day, but still. In all, from the information thus far made public, it appears the University of Arkansas had the right to fire him.
Should it have fired him? That’s not for me to decide. What business is it of mine whether or not two contracting parties behave as I wish them to behave in the performance of their contractual obligations? What business is it of anyone that’s not an Arkansas season ticket holder, or at least an Arkansas taxpayer (though, as mentioned, Petrino’s organization needs no tax subsidy to pay his salary), how the University and its football coach meet their ends of the contractual bargain? Everyone in this age of instant communication is now, it seems, a busybody, particularly when it comes to prurient affairs. What has happened to the idea that people’s privacy should be respected, except where what they have done directly impacts the general public in some way? It has been lost among the twits tweetering nonsense; the people that have become so cravenly socialized until they have no understanding where their world leaves off and someone else’s world begins.
Which makes the release of Petrino’s phone records through a Freedom of Information Act request despairingly unsurprising. And according to the linked story, the University is the party that released the cell phone records, no doubt, in an attempt to justify firing one of Arkansas’ most successful football coaches of all time. (Would that FOIA requests were so quickly filled on matters of a less prurient nature which are inherently matters of public concern. For example, it took years of litigation before the Federal Reserve was finally forced to reveal to whom it lent money during the financial crisis. The University of Arkansas must have begged someone to file an FOIA request for this to have happened so quickly). The University apparently sought to ensure Petrino’s alleged breach of the morality clause in his contract was clean, releasing records that show–wow–a man and his mistress often communicating via cell phone. But it does just the opposite for me. It shows that there was an ongoing affair between Petrino and his paramour–the records go back to September, and show regular contact between them since–that someone in the University’s athletic department was surely fully aware. Which makes the University’s moral stand a bit disingenuous, to say the least. The University got morally outraged when the affair became public knowledge and the public, as is routine, publicly and vehemently expressed its outrage, but didn’t give a good god damn so long as what Bobby and his girlfriend did on the back of his motorcycle stayed on the back of his motorcycle. Anyone that believes the affair was unknown to the University before the wreck exposed it to the public simply has a bad case of intentional naiveté. Nothing of the existence of an affair like this could possibly have gone unnoticed by anyone close to Bobby Petrino, which is to say, pretty much the whole of the Arkansas athletic department management was probably well aware of its existence.
But which party has been least immoral here? Was it Petrino for wrecking his motorcycle with his girlfriend aboard? Or, Petrino for covering up, until he could no longer, the fact of his girlfriend being aboard the motorcyle? Or, Petrino for having a girlfriend, and hiring her in some administrative position for the athletic department? Or, the University for pretending it didn’t know of Petrino’s girlfriend, or that Petrino had given her a job because she was his girlfriend? (I’m intentionally leaving off the allegation that Petrino gave his girlfriend some $20,000. Petrino can give his money to whomever he wants.)
I don’t see where anyone is without moral blame (keeping in mind that the general public like me is owed no moral duty), but no party except the University is pretending itself aggrieved. Petrino is a big boy, and knows the University won’t stop short of anything to protect what it feels is its vaunted reputation, so it’s hard to feel sorry for him. But the University delivered Petrino’s head to a morally outraged public in order to present the appearance of taking a courageous moral stand, going so far as to release Petrino’s phone records as proof of Petrino’s evil. Petrino wasn’t evil before the unfortunate motorcycle accident. Why is he evil now?
Bobby Petrino was hired to coach Arkansas football. He was not hired to get his football players to heaven, or even to enhance the University’s perception in the public eye, except in so far as winning football games might do so. The University didn’t have a problem with Petrino’s off the field romantic dalliances until he was caught in the midst of one that the University felt made it look bad. Ethically, it seems that firing Petrino was perhaps the least courageous stand the University could have taken.