Slaying fallout: UVA, Casteen, lacrosse weathering a PR nightmare
On May 2, the University of Virginia men's lacrosse team was the toast of the collegiate sports world, and university president John Casteen was preparing to preside over his final graduation. A day later, one student-athlete lay dead with another student-athlete accused of killing her. And that has changed lives on the two lacrosse teams–- and at the helm.
"I think he's suffering," says University spokesperson Carol Wood, noting that Casteen, the father of three daughters, "wants to find appropriate ways to prevent something like this from ever happening again."
Casteen had certainly made conquering the scourge of binge-drinking a hallmark of his 20-year presidency. After a notorious 1997 stairway death, Casteen helped launch a variety of responsible drinking programs including securing a $2.5 million donation four years ago to convince students that drinking to oblivion is not normal.
Ironically, fourth year lacrosse player George Huguely, who, according to an affidavit, has admitted to the violence that led to the death of women's lacrosse player Yeardley Love, has a history of drinking problems. With revelations that his coach knew about at least one act of drink-fueled violence, UVA may be facing the most serious PR emergency in Casteen's soon-to-end presidency.
"They need to protect their reputation and also have people understand that there's zero tolerance that the school has for conduct as extreme as that," says New Jersey-based public relations expert Chris Rosica.
Getting that message out may have been the main purpose of a suddenly arranged press conference on Wednesday, May 5, for which media members received only an hour's notice. At that event, Casteen joined athletic director Craig Littlepage and other top administrators to answer reporters' questions, and, it seemed to some, to deflect blame from the school for apparently not knowing anything about Huguely's criminal record.
That record includes a pair of November 2008 misdemeanor convictions for public drunkenness and resisting arrest in an altercation with a female police officer in Lexington that escalated to the point the officer used her Taser to subdue the 6'2" 209 pound athlete–- something Huguely later didn't remember.
One person notably absent from UVA's press event was men's lacrosse Coach Dom Starsia. From a PR perspective, says Rosica, Starsia's absence was a mistake.
"It does send a message that they're trying to conceal something," notes Rosica, "regardless of whether they are or not."
Spokesperson Wood, however, says Starsia has the university's "full support" and notes that women's lacrosse coach Julie Myers also wasn't present. The absences, Woods says, were not about avoiding the press.
"The coaches' first priority has been their student-athletes," says Wood. "As you can imagine, this is a very difficult time for the players of both the women's and men's teams, and they need the full attention of their coaches."
Indeed, the men's team won the ACC championship with a victory over archrival Duke and with a Saturday, May 15 victory over Mount St. Mary's in their first match of the NCAA tournament, the team retains a strong chance of winning its fourth title. That victory came a week after Coach Starsia suffered a further loss with the death of his 86-year-old father on Friday, May 7. He broke his media silence Sunday, May 9, after NCAA tournament selections and talked about the pain of the week.
"It's hard to put into words what this week has been like,” Starsia told sports reporters.“It's been tragic on so many levels. I was glad to be able to at least consider the lacrosse part of this again today."
Myers broke her silence to offer a eulogy at Love's May 8 funeral, for which several UVA men's lacrosse players served as pallbearers in what many saw as a sign of unity between the remaining members of the men's and women's teams. The men's team has also helped create a $500,000 scholarship fund, and both teams during their first NCAA tournament match wore t-shirts and uniform patches bearing Love's name. The women's team was also victorious in its opening match against Towson.
Yeardley Love is the cover story of last week's People magazine, and as the weeks go on, says Rosica, the media scrutiny may ebb and flow, but it won't disappear.
"The scrutiny can last weeks and even months depending on the case," says Rosica, noting the potential for a lengthy criminal prosecution, "There are different phases that generate new opportunities for publicity."
To counteract the negative press, says Rosica, author of Authentic Brand, UVA needs to raise awareness of domestic violence.
"I'd suggest that they create a genuine education effort to try and prevent this from happening in the future," says Rosica, noting that it won't be a quick fix. "They need to make sure it's sustained and that it's long term policy for the university."
Nearly two weeks into this crisis, outspoken UVA student activist Madeleine Conger says the school was too slow to stress domestic violence awareness in emails they sent to students. An email sent out by UVA Vice President Patricia Lampkin the day after the slaying, for instance, focused on safety tips to avoid stranger violence–- "relatively useless" and "utterly irrelevant," says Conger.
"Locking your doors and walking home with a friend," she notes, "will do little to help a victim if the friend that walks her home is the one who will later beat or kill her."
Two days later, Lampkin sent a second email to students, this time focused on the dangers of domestic violence and offering information on the school's domestic violence prevention resources–- a move that Conger applauds.
"I'd rather see the university be more proactive than reactive and err on the side of more information than secrecy," Conger says, acknowledging the school is walking a tightrope.
UVA isn't the only school to struggle with how to handle a sports-related crisis. The so-called Duke lacrosse scandal in 2006 thrust the entire team into the spotlight after three men's lacrosse team members were accused–- falsely as it turned out–- of raping a stripper the team had hired for a party.
Duke Coach Mike Pressler, forced to resign at the height of the media frenzy, sued the school, as did the three accused players, who demanded $30 million. All reached settlements of undisclosed sums. In 2008, 38 other former Duke players sued the school, the City of Durham, and various individuals for the alleged harm inflicted on them by the rush to judgment.
One of the 38 plaintiffs is a former Charlottesville resident, who says his thoughts are with the "entire UVA lacrosse family" as they struggle to perform under intense scrutiny.
"We are all hurting for the entire UVA lacrosse family during this heartbreaking situation," says Edward "Bo" Carrington. "I hope that the media and everyone else will allow the justice system to do its job and in the mean time, focus on remembering and honoring Yeardley Love." Carrington declined further comment citing the pending litigation.
Those Duke suits may be weighing on the minds of UVA administrators, says legal analyst David Heilberg, explaining that they serve a good legal reason for the school to withhold judgment of Coach Starsia's leadership until all the facts are out, even as many news stories are asking if Starsia should have known Huguely was prone to violent outbursts.
"Everybody wants you to do something," says Heilberg of the pressure UVA may feel to leap into action. "But sometimes the courageous thing is to wait and not rush to judgment."
The facts of the case will undoubtedly continue to come out as a group of newspapers have filed legal motions to unseal court documents relating to the investigation, and as Huguely heads to a preliminary hearing in June. For UVA, says Rosica, preparing for a long road of unwanted national coverage is key.
"It's not just going to be gone," he says. "It's going to continue to rear its head."