In a seemingly endless Spring of sports scandals, the University of Arkansas fired head football coach Bobby Petrino, following revelations that his mistress, who was also a former employee of his football program, was involved in his recent motorcycle accident. Part of the explanation of Petrino’s firing was that he had engaged in a “pattern of manipulative and misleading behavior,” and had “negatively and adversely affected the University of Arkansas and our football program.”
While this event should mostly be understood as a moment when the University of Arkansas opted for doing the right thing over winning football games, an exceedingly rare event in today’s collegiate athletic environment, one part of Petrino’s firing troubles me. It has repeatedly been stated, by both the University of Arkansas and various talking-head sports pundits, that it was Petrino’s decision to hire his mistress into a position with his own football program, and then to deceive his employer about having done so, which lead to his termination. The infidelity alone, though regrettable, was not enough to justify firing him.
But, given the explanation of his firing, why was this not enough?
It might be argued that Petrino’s philandering was irrelevant to his job performance. He was very successful as a football coach, and that is what matters to his employer. However, that argument could be used against the actual reason given for Petrino’s termination. Hiring his mistress, then lying about it, didn’t make him a bad football coach, only a bad human being. Clearly, Arkansas fired Petrino because he made them look very bad, in a broadly public way.
For most people, it was Petrino’s “inappropriate relationship” with an engaged 25-year old that made him, and Arkansas in virtue of employing him, look bad. As a head football coach at an academic institution, Petrino is charged with setting an example for the young men under his tutelage. By cheating on his faithful wife and failing to properly value his family, Petrino failed this duty.
Hiring Jessica Dorrell, lying about the nature of their relationship, and then trying to conceal that relationship from his employer only exacerbated the most egregious wrong that Petrino committed. This decision was more an act of stupidity than immorality, but stupid plus immoral is a great recipe for losing your job.
By claiming that Petrino was fired because he hired Dorrell, or that he lied about his involvement with her, implies an unusual value hierarchy at the University of Arkansas, where presentation of one’s public persona is more important than how one conducts oneself with the people they ought to care most about. This is why, though I appreciate Arkansas’s moxy, I wish they’d handled things a bit differently.
Petrino did negatively affect the reputation of the University of Arkansas, but that damage was almost immediately repaired by his firing. The best reason to fire Petrino, the reason Jeff Long should have cited in his press conference, is that Bobby Petrino is a bad person. So while I respect Arkansas’s decision to fire Petrino, I would have respected it more if they had done it for the best reasons.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.