Digging into the "morals clause"

PitinoCover.jpgSome sex scandals are sad but exciting and some are just unseemly. This Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino one is a doozie. The married father of five had unprotected sex six years ago with a woman he had just met earlier in the evening and when she claimed to have gotten pregnant from the encounter he gave her $3,000. He says the money was for insurance. She says it was for an abortion. And then years later he went to the FBI after, he says, her extortion attempts got out of hand. I wanted to highlight two stories that handled the confession in completely different ways. First, the Associated Press account. Here it is, published on Sports Illustrated/CNN:

University of Louisville President James Ramsey expressed surprise at the new details in the scandal surrounding the coach, a staunch Roman Catholic whose contract includes dishonesty and "moral depravity" as grounds for firing. . . .

Pitino is a dedicated Roman Catholic who has brought a priest who's a close friend and spiritual adviser on team trips.

I wouldn't mind knowing what the adjectives "staunch" and "dedicated" mean in this case.

Another interesting story is from the Louisville Courier-Journal, headlined "Pitino apologizes but says he won't resign." This story doesn't mention anything at all about Pitino's religious views but it did report on what a variety of university-affiliated and local parties thought about the sordid affair, including one social conservative group:

In a blog yesterday, Martin Cothran, a lobbyist for the Family Foundation of Kentucky who has in the past advocated against abortion and same-sex marriage, called for the university to fire Pitino.

There are “two issues here,” Cothran said in an interview. “One is, are we holding Rick Pitino to a lower moral standard than we do student athletes? ... We suspend people from teams for bar fights. We fire high school coaches for unintentionally causing the deaths of others. What we have in this case is somebody who intentionally acted to end a human life.”

What Cothran is referring to is the apparent decision by University president James Ramsey and Athletic Director Tom Jurich that they support Pitino and that he need not be dismissed for violating a "morals clause" in his contract. Here, from the same report is more on that clause:

Under his contract, Pitino will collect a $3.6 million bonus if he is still coach on July 1, 2010.

That contract allows him to be fired for acts of “moral depravity,” or for being dishonest with the university, or for generating disparaging media publicity, if it is caused by “willful conduct that could objectively be determined to bring (the) employee into public dispute or scandal.”

So-called “morals clauses” are common in contracts of college coaches, and allows them to be fired for inappropriate conduct that is not necessarily criminal, such as visiting a topless bar. That act, for example, led to former Alabama football coach Mike Price's dismissal in 2003 before he ever coached a game for the university.

While an extramarital affair alone is unlikely to trigger a morals clause, giving money for an abortion and being less than completely forthcoming with the university “might be enough,” said Brian Socolow, a New York sports attorney who has written on the subject.

“Coach Pitino may be in some danger,” he said.

I think the missing ghost vis-a-vis the "morals clause" might be Coach Pitino's record at the public university more than anything else.

Apart from the sad tale of Pitino and this woman, it might be interesting for reporters to dig into these "morals clauses" and see what purpose they serve. In Kentucky, basketball is something of a religion but the religious angles of sports are seen in the coverage nationwide. If having sex with a random woman and giving her cash for insurance/abortion doesn't trigger the clause, it makes one wonder what would trigger it.

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