Jeff Long, the vice chancellor and athletics director at Arkansas, clearly heeded the lessons of Penn State. When coach Bobby Petrino informed Long on the afternoon of April 5 that he had previously misled the university about the circumstances of his April 1 motorcycle accident—that Petrino was not alone, but with a recently hired female employee of the football program with whom he’d had a “previous inappropriate relationship”—Long moved within hours to place Petrino on paid administrative leave and held a late-night press conference to inform the press. Long did not crucify Petrino to the press, but rather made clear he would conduct a full review of the situation before proceeding further. In doing so, Long likely headed off any future allegations of a university coverup.
While it’s unseemly, Long needs to fully understand the “previous inappropriate relationship” between Petrino and his female companion, Jessica Dorrell. On March 28, four days before the accident, Petrino announced Dorrell’s hiring as student-athlete development coordinator for the Razorbacks, a position that involves planning recruiting visits and determining freshman eligibility. Dorrell previously worked for more than two years as a fundraiser the Razorback Foundation, the private booster group that supports the Arkansas athletic department. Presumably, Petrino’s “previous inappropriate relationship” took place while Dorrell worked for the foundation.
The Razorback Foundation pays a portion of Petrino’s compensation—including $200,000 annually for “speaking engagements”—and in the event he is terminated “for convenience” before the contract expires, the foundation guarantees his buyout, which as of right now would be $1.25 million.
Of course, Long could decide after his review to dismiss Petrino “for cause,” in which case he would not be entitled to any further compensation. Petrino’s contract states five specific categories of “cause,” including “significant or repetitive” violations of NCAA rules or conviction of any crime other than “minor traffic offenses.” Of relevance here, the fifth and final category incorporates,
[C]onduct, as solely determined by the University, which is clearly contrary to the character and responsibilities of a person occupying the position of Head Football Coach or which negatively or adversely affects the reputation of the University or UAF’s athletics programs in any way.
Although dubbed a “morals clause” in the press, this is really a “bad publicity” clause. If Petrino’s actions generate a significant negative media reaction—and early indications are that it has—this clause gives Arkansas an escape route to fire Petrino without having to pay him off.
However, Petrino also has certain contractual due process rights. In order to dismiss Petrino “for cause,” Long must follow procedures expressly outlined in the coach’s contract. After giving Petrino “an opportunity to respond to the reasons for dismissal,” Long must give Petrino a written explanation of his decision, which Petrino would then have five days to contest. Long or Petrino could then seek a hearing before a committee of three Arkansas officials: Provost Sharon Gaber, chief financial officer Donald Pederson, and the chair of the faculty committee on athletics. The committee would hold a formal hearing before making a recommendation to Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gerhart, who would make the final decision on whether to fire Petrino. (Long and Petrino could also opt to bypass the committee and have Gerhart conduct the hearing.)
Obviously, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Long has not conducted his review, nor has he manifested any intent to fire Petrino. But there is a strong possibility Long’s review will uncover additional information damaging to Petrino. The major issue at this point is the circumstances surrounding Dorrell’s March 28 hiring. The first question is whether Petrino gave her the job in exchange for her keeping quiet about their relationship. The second question is whether that relationship was sexual and, if so, was it completely consensual.
Like all universities, Arkansas has detailed policies regarding sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by supervisors. Arkansas’ policy does not ban consensual sexual relationships, but it does warn that “the resulting conflict of interest should be addressed in accordance with university policies concerning conflicts of interest.” Under those policies, if Petrino and Dorrell maintained a relationship while employed by the university—and remember, Dorrell was previously employed at the Razorback Foundation, which is a separate entity—they would have to file a form disclosing their relationship which would then have to be approved by their immediate supervisor, in this case Jeff Long.
Even if Petrino and Dorrell ended their relationship before she was hired at Arkansas, however, the hiring itself may run afoul of federal civil rights law. If Dorrell is disciplined or fired, she could pursue a sexual harassment claim against Petrino or Arkansas. And anyone else who applied for the student-athlete development coordinator position could sue claiming they were illegally denied employment opportunities because they weren’t sleeping with Petrino.
The other thing Long has to determine is whether the Dorrell relationship was an isolated occurrence or whether Petrino had other “inappropriate relationships,” both at Arkansas and during his previous coaching assignments. Long is no doubt mindful of another famous former Arkansas state employee, Bill Clinton, whose voluminous indiscretions produced over a decade of criminal and civil litigation. Clinton’s impeachment while president, you’ll recall, came not as a result of the first woman to come forward alleging sexual harassment, but of additional women uncovered by the first woman’s attorneys. Long needs to make absolutely sure there won’t be a parade of women coming forward with credible claims that Petrino helped them get jobs in exchange for sexual favors.
Long’s job here is to protect the university, not Petrino. Frankly, based on what is in the public record, Long probably has enough to fire Petrino right now “for cause.” But Long also needs to gather additional facts to try and protect Arkansas from potential lawsuits from Dorrell, other mistresses that may be out there, and disgruntled job seekers. Long promised an expedited review, and there’s no reason not to take him at his word. Petrino’s fate may well be known within weeks if not days.