Controversy erupted in Detroit this week as an embarrassing revelation came out about incoming Lions head coach Matt Patricia’s past.
Patricia was arrested and charged following an alleged 1996 sexual assault incident on South Padre Island, Texas. The charges were ultimately dropped before the case went to trial.
Now, Joe Banner, a former NFL executive who ran two coaching searches in Philadelphia and another two in Cleveland, is saying that it’s not as hard as one might think for a team to miss a background item of that nature.
“My reaction when I saw it was, ‘Oh my God, this could have happened to me.’ This could have happened to almost anybody,” Banner told USA Today.
Patricia, for his part, has claimed he is innocent.
The point is that a normal criminal background check, the same kind the average working person must pass at many jobs, looks only at records of criminal convictions or civil fines. The idea, after all, is “innocent until proven guilty,” and someone wrongly accused of a crime is thus given the same standing as someone else who was never accused.
However, an enhanced background check — the kind that can be done through search tools like LexisNexis — as well as interviews with friends, family and past employers; conversations with local law enforcement; and other tools can and did reveal an arrest and a charge.
Local laws can hamstring this process; some states have strong protections on the privacy of past information not directly relevant to, say, a criminal background check. The Lions are bound by law in the state of Michigan, and since Patricia was a longtime resident of Massachusetts, Bay State law factors into this as well.
In fact, it was Massachusetts law that made this legal version of a quarterback’s missed read possible. Patricia’s former home state requires criminal records involving arrests, indictments or convictions over seven years old to be sealed, and this incident lapsed off the books more than a decade ago.
Lions president Rod Wood addressed the optics involved, saying, “I understand why people might be frustrated that we didn’t know this and maybe didn’t do the wrong thing to learn about it.”
“But I’d rather be on the side of always doing the right thing and if there’s an arrow to be taken for doing the right thing, I’ll take it 100 times over doing the wrong thing and getting criticized for doing the wrong thing,” he added.
In addition, the Lions have previously rescinded offers based on things discovered during background checks, as Wood pointed out.
“So it’s not as if we receive something that we don’t like, we ignore it,” Wood said. “We act on it.”
The point could be made that Patricia himself failed to disclose any prior wrongdoing or alleged wrongdoing during the interview process, but that speaks to a slippery slope of its own.
After all, it was a single incident 22 years ago, one that was thrown out of court when the alleged victim refused to testify.
So in the eyes of the law, Patricia didn’t do anything wrong, and in Patricia’s own eyes, he has steadfastly maintained he didn’t break the law. What’s more, his home state sealed the records.
Greg Suhajda, a former agent for the Secret Service and FBI who runs background checks for NFL teams as senior managing director of business intelligence at Mackinac Partners, spoke about the PR nightmare the Lions now face.
“They wanted just additional stuff just to make sure something like this wouldn’t come out,” he said. “It goes to reputation of the organization, certainly. … This is kind of the exact thing that a lot of these teams fear.”
Suhajda went on to address the issue of whether Patricia’s non-disclosure constituted a more severe lie of omission.
“Certainly, fiscally, you’re worried about a lot of financial aspects that may go to the person’s character, or honesty or integrity as to what he said on some of the applications,” Suhajda said. “And determining the veracity of all that is critical from an integrity standpoint. And surely one of the questions (for Patricia) had to be, have you ever been convicted of a crime or charged with a crime?”
“And in this case, he certainly wasn’t convicted, he was charged, so it would go to his character that he failed to even bring this up, in my opinion. Cause certainly if you’re indicted there had to have been something there, something was filed, and it was serious enough where somebody thought, or a group of people thought, the evidence was significant enough to go forward.”
Patricia’s, meanwhile, said Thursday at a news conference that “there was never any situation in the Lions interview where I did not disclose the truth.”
Suhajda, however, got to the heart of the issue by invoking the “no surprises” doctrine of corporate hiring.
“Most stuff, if you have an explanation for it, fine,” Suhajda said. “But we don’t want surprises. No surprises is kind of the mantra when you’re digging deep into someone from a reputational standpoint or whatever might impact not just the person but the organization and its employees. So this certainly counts as a surprise.”
The Lions do not appear to be letting this situation affect their plans for the actual football team going forward.
Wood and owner Martha Firestone Ford attended Patricia’s news conference on Thursday, and they gave him an endorsement following his proclamation of innocence.
“Based upon everything we have learned, we believe and have accepted Coach Patricia’s explanation and we will continue to support him,” they said in a joint statement. “We will continue to work with our players and the NFL to further awareness of and protections for those individuals who are the victims of sexual assault or violence.”
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