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In USF payoff to Leavitt, a terrible message

Sacrificing principle in a cynical attempt to save time and money might make sense in private business, but the University of South Florida is a public institution where accountability and transparency should mean something. The university sent a terrible message by paying off former football coach Jim Leavitt and signing a confidentiality agreement. Even if the settlement will not be paid with tax money, the public is owed an explanation.

Leavitt and USF announced Tuesday that they had settled a wrongful termination lawsuit he filed when the university fired him last year after determining he slapped one of his players during halftime of a big game. USF agreed to pay Leavitt $2.75 million, the coach agreed to terms that guarantee he will not work at USF again, and both sides signed a confidentiality agreement. The university won't even say where the settlement money is coming from — the university's foundation or sports boosters or a private citizen.

How tidy. It is often a red flag when the parties in a lawsuit gag themselves from publicly answering questions about a settlement. But this was not some ordinary civil suit. USF acted responsibly after learning in December 2009 that Leavitt was accused grabbing a player's throat and slapping him. With the help of a noted Tampa labor attorney, the university spoke with witnesses and concluded that Leavitt had slapped the player, had offered an incredible story and had interfered with the investigation. USF fired him "with cause" for "serious" misconduct.

USF president Judy Genshaft was a strong supporter of the only head football coach USF had known, and she clearly did not relish firing the coach who built the program from scratch and took it to national prominence. Yet Genshaft sent a powerful message last year that student-athletes were students first, that athletics would be held accountable and that the university stands for something more than wins and losses. What changed?

Nobody disputes that both sides had practical reasons to settle the case. With scores of depositions planned, the case could have dragged on for a year or more. Leavitt, who denied the charges, wants to coach again. USF wants to move on. But agreeing to settle and never talk about the issue again means the public will never know whether Leavitt or USF was wrong.

The university wants to boil the whole issue down to money. So what that "nonstate sources" of money are being used to pay Leavitt's settlement? Private donors with deep pockets may be willing to pay, but Leavitt worked for the university. He was responsible for state students in his program. And the team that takes the field represents USF, the Tampa Bay area and the state of Florida, not some private citizen.

It's worth remembering, as the university walks away, that USF asked its own student-athletes to stand on principle and cooperate in the investigation at the risk of jeopardizing their football futures. Now future players may think twice about showing the same courage if a coach again steps over the line in the locker room — and USF has ceded some of the high moral ground it so publicly claimed a year ago.

In USF payoff to Leavitt, a terrible message 01/12/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 7:47pm]
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