When Should We Forgive Public Figures?
The unending stories this year about prominent athletes who have misbehaved raise important ethics questions. Who can we forgive and who should we ban for a lengthy time or even for life? Those questions have ramifications beyond the stadium. They even have lessons for our personal lives.
Who can forget the furor over running back Ray Rice who was originally suspended for just two games after knocking his then-fiancée unconscious? He was finally released from the Ravens and is now a free agent, although other teams are avoiding him. Or Adrian Peterson, who is suing for reinstatement to the NFL after his suspension following his no contest plea to charges of reckless assault in the punishment of his son? Did these players deserve their punishments? Should they ever be allowed to rejoin the league?
The National College Athletic Association had to revisit a similar question in February when they settled a lawsuit by Penn State. Penn was protesting sanctions imposed for the repeated sexual abuse behaviors of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and the negligence of coach Joe Paterno regarding the behaviors. The $60 million fine stayed, but Penn State’s 112 football wins were restored to the team and the postseason ban was overturned. Was this a fair outcome?
This is not just a question for sports organizations, but one that boards face frequently when the CEO or another senior executive misbehaves.
This is not just a question for sports organizations, but one that boards face frequently when the CEO or another senior executive misbehaves. Should Hewlett Packard’s former CEO Mark Hurd have kept his job after the alleged offense of misstating $25,000 in expenses? (He didn’t stay with HP but was subsequently hired by Oracle.) Should Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel have kept his job after revelations of his misogynist and horrific frat boy emails that made inappropriate comments about sorority members and tasteless jokes? (He did.)
Sometimes, these decisions are out of the hands of boards and wind up with regulators. Recently, an Applied Materials executive agreed to a 10-year ban from serving as an officer or director of a publicly traded company and a Barclay’s analyst agreed to a lifetime ban from the securities industry after they settled charges of insider trading with the SEC.
Even religion has had a turn in the stocks. Driving while intoxicated, Maryland Episcopal Bishop Heather Cook hit and killed a cyclist. She had an earlier guilty plea in 2010 for DWI, but was still elected as bishop by a forgiving hiring committee. Did they do wrong? Now the national church has restricted her indefinitely from acting as a clergyperson. Was that the right decision?
When can misbehavior be forgiven or overlooked?
When can misbehavior be forgiven or overlooked? Clearly horrific or egregious misbehavior should result in criminal prosecution and, in the case of athletes, a lifetime ban. But most cases are less serious, though they still raise serious questions about the moral character of the individual.
I would suggest any evidence of repeated offenses should result in a less-forgiving stance, as should any indication that a perpetrator is unrepentant. I would be less forgiving the more of a public or “representative” figure the individual is—think CEOs, elected officials, and sports stars who are unavoidably models to youth.
Recently public debate focused on journalist Brian Williams and his exaggerations about his war experience. Williams was suspended from NBC Nightly News for six months without pay. Can he return as anchor? Where would you draw the line?