The hiring of Lions coach Matt Patricia carries with it a surprising new caveat that, depending on the manner in which the dominoes fall, could threaten to end his tenure before it even really begins.
According to Robert Snell of the Detroit News, Patricia was indicted for sexual assault in 1996.
Both Patricia, then 21, and Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute teammate and fraternity brother Greg Dietrich, then 22, were charged by a grand jury with one count of aggravated sexual assault. They allegedly burst into the hotel room of a 21-year-old woman while on spring break at South Padre Island, Texas and “took turns violently sexual assaulting her.”
The case eventually was dismissed in January 1997, because the alleged victim did “not feel she can face the pressures or stress of a trial.”
One of the lawyers who represented Patricia at the time claims that the assault didn’t occur.
“In my opinion, it was a fabrication,” Jeff Wilson told Snell. “I’m telling you it was a ‘he said, she said.’ I don’t know what type of problems the girl was having; I don’t know why she made that allegation. We vehemently denied that he was doing anything wrong or did anything wrong.”
On one hand, that’s what a lawyer is supposed to say. On the other hand, false accusations do indeed happen.
But while the case was the subject of news reports and public records in the early days of the Internet, it appears that the Lions didn’t know about the allegations when hiring Patricia. According to Snell, team president Rod Wood initially said, “I don’t know anything about this.” Wood later provided a statement of support for Patricia and the manner in which he was hired.
“I am very comfortable with the process of interviewing and employing Matt,” Wood told Snell. “I will tell you with 1,000-percent certainty that everything I’ve learned confirmed what I already knew about the man and would have no way changed our decision to make him our head coach.”
That may be the case, but what if this allegation had emerged during the period of time between the firing of Jim Caldwell and the hiring of Patricia? Could the Lions (who seemed in hindsight to be destined to hire Patricia from the moment Bob Quinn became G.M.) have followed through with the hiring of Patricia if this story had emerged before he was announced as the head coach?
This isn’t a matter of legal guilt or innocence; it’s a matter of league and team P.R. in the era of the #MeToo movement. Ultimately, whether the Lions will be able to keep Patricia may depend in large part on the local and national reaction to the news. The story could quickly away, or it could snowball into a controversy that forces the Lions to make a change — even if, as a matter of basic contract law, the Lions most likely would be forced to pay Patricia every dollar of his four-year deal if they decide to fire him.
The Lions could decide to try to shut off Patricia’s right to a buyout, if they decide that they have no choice but to make a change. It’s possible, for example, that paperwork completed or other information submitted by Patricia when he got the job contemplated full disclosure of the indictment. If he failed to do so, that could be grounds for a so-called termination for cause.
Before it ever gets to that point, the Lions would have to conclude that it’s not practical to proceed with Patricia as the coach. And the league office, which has become ultra-sensitive to the public-relations consequences of allegations of violence against women, surely will take a position on what the Lions should do. That position definitely will be shaped by the extent to which it’s believed that the situation creates a P.R. problem for the league office.