Sixty-three days after Jordan McNair, a University of Maryland football player, died from complications related to heat stroke he suffered during training, University President Wallace Loh made a public apology, taking “legal and moral responsibility” for McNair’s death. Sports broadcasters and analysts called this apology “stunning” given its candor and admission of wrongdoing. I call it refreshing (relative to the typical failed apology), slow to arrive, and almost complete.
During the press conference, President Loh stated, “The university accepts legal and moral responsibility for the mistakes that our training staff made on that fateful workout day of May the 29th, which of course led subsequently to his death on June 13th. The university owes you an apology. You entrusted Jordan to our care, and he is never returning home again…. And nothing that we can do can bring closure to their enormous loss.”
Acting Athletic Director Damon Evans added, “We have learned that Jordan did not receive appropriate medical care, and mistakes were made by some of our athletic training personnel. Specifically, in his preliminary observations, (independent investigator Dr. Rod) Walters found that the emergency response plan was not appropriately followed. Second, the care we provided was not consistent with best practices. And third, that heat illness was not properly identified or treated. Our athletic training staff did not take Jordan’s temperature and did not apply a cold-water immersion treatment…. As a father, there are no words to say to Jordan’s parents that are good enough. I have looked into the eyes of a grieving mother and father. There is simply nothing good enough…. We will honor Jordan’s life. And we will ensure that a tragedy such as this never happens on our campus again by working every single day to provide the safest environment for our student athletes on and off the field.”
Three elements distinguish this public apology as more effective than most:
- A higher level of sincerity from organizational leaders, based on genuine empathy for the aggrieved
- A higher level of focus on the aggrieved—in this case, the victim’s family—than on their own shame
- A thorough ownership of truth in the complaint—namely, that the university’s failures led directly to Jordan McNair’s death
This third element is perhaps the most surprising, because organizations and especially universities are so defensive against litigation and tend to follow the textbook legal recommendation of make no admissions. Why can’t owning truth in the complaint be the norm? When an independent investigator is gathering facts, those facts will be published and accepted as truth, so what is the advantage of waiting to comment or own responsibility?
When facts are plain, obvious, and beyond dispute (as in this case), acknowledging them is unlikely to increase judgments or settlement amounts, but staying silent will definitely increase public anger and interfere with forgiveness, further damaging brand and reputation.
Loh and Evans understood this, and thus were free to make a sincere and comparatively unique public apology. They deserve some credit. However, they could have done better.
First, they took too long to respond, holding their press conference more than two months after Jordan McNair died, for which they have drawn widespread criticism. Their explanation for this delay was choosing to wait for findings from the investigation. However, the findings they cited do not appear to require two months to discover, and if they did, then President Loh needed to provide timely, public updates and acknowledge the plain, obvious, and indisputable facts as they unfolded. Waiting in silence allows too much opportunity for cynical speculation. Even when the eventual message is effective, the accumulated distrust can be hard to overcome at that point.
Beyond the slow timing, the apology also had room for qualitative improvements. Although Loh and Evans thoroughly owned truth in the complaint, they could have included more explicit examples of cognitive empathy—that is, acknowledgment of the points of view, values, and expectations of their audience. They might have said:
“Parents, players, and their entire community rely on coaching and training staffs to keep players healthy and safe. They expect us to be the responsible adults of college football and place a high level of trust in us to be professional and vigilant and follow best practices. Our failures in this situation resulted in Jordan’s death, and they also gave the impression that we don’t care enough about our players, suggesting fundamental flaws in our culture.”
Loh and Evans attempted to provide emotional empathy—“… nothing that we can do can bring closure to their enormous loss” and “…there are no words to say to Jordan’s parents that are good enough”—but their response needed to go further and address specific feelings. They also would have benefitted from connecting with the feelings of their wider audience, beyond McNair’s parents. Loh and Evans could have added:
“As a result of our failures, the McNair family must feel heartbroken, angry, and bitterly disappointed that we did not protect their son as they had trusted us to do. Jordan’s teammates, friends, and community also have every right to these feelings, as does the University of Maryland’s faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Even members of the general public with no connection to Jordan or the university may judge us angrily for our actions, and we must accept those without question.”
Finally, in their statements to the press, these leaders fell into the common trap of focusing too much energy on promises and actions to correct failures and not enough energy toward providing cognitive and emotional empathy to a large, angry, and disgusted audience. C.L. Max Nikias, former President of the University of Southern California, responded with corrective plans following several public scandals involving USC. The last of these was a 20-page comprehensive action plan that was published and distributed university-wide. Despite the plan's attempts to address the university's core values, culture, and operational structure, it did nothing to stem the relentless pressure from faculty, students, and community members demanding the President's resignation. Less than a week later, Nikias announced his decision to resign.
When systemic failures result in tragedy or great damage, those affected do not have the capacity or desire to hear promises and plans. Leaders of the offending organization must thoroughly and sincerely address the perspectives and feelings of the aggrieved before those people can be impressed by ideas for remedies. Wallace Loh and Damon Evans did much better than most, but need to generate more empathy for more people if they want to win back trust and restore their university’s standing with the public.
Jason Sackett, PCC, LCSW When people don't play nice in the sandbox, I help professionals and organizations become masters over conflict, decrease their costs related to grievances and workplace “upset,” protect their brand and consumer loyalty, and improve staff retention and engagement. If grievances and anger are hurting your organization, I want to help. To learn more about what I do, read Compassion@Work, or visit ManagingUpset.com.
Here is the YouTube address for the Maryland Press Conference Regarding Terrapin Football https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/legal-moral-responsibility-public-apology-almost-got-jason/