Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia speaks at a press conference, concerning his indictment in a 1996 sexual assault case, at the training facility in Allen Park, Michigan on May 10, 2018. Patricia says he was falsely accused. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News
Allen Park — Matt Patricia did what he had to do, what you’d expect him to do. He responded forcefully and passionately Thursday to an old allegation of sexual assault that was never proven, called the Detroit News report “unfair” and repeatedly claimed his innocence.
He looked more hurt than angry, and in his words and demeanor, he seemed genuine and believable. But just as important as the message from the podium was the message from three people sitting to the left of the stage — Lions owner Martha Ford, team president Rod Wood, GM Bob Quinn. Because while Patricia was defiantly speaking “to defend my honor and clear my name,” the Lions were putting on their own show of force and trust in him.
In some ways, the Lions are taking the bigger leap of faith now — in Patricia and Quinn — doubling down by admitting they didn’t know about the incident, and aren’t concerned they didn’t know. Quinn had immense trust in Patricia from their 12 years together in New England, and you wonder if that kept him from fully vetting Patricia’s past.
The charge itself from 22 years ago is old news. But it’s relevant news when information surfaces that an NFL head coach once was indicted for rape, although never tried or convicted. It’s not career-threatening news, and if that’s where the story ends, it doesn’t even have to be character-threatening news.
Is it troubling in today’s climate of heightened — and enlightened — awareness of sexual assault? It is. Is it surprising that Patricia, 43, could work 14 years with the Patriots and get hired by the Lions without the incident ever coming up? It is.
The old news is that Patricia was arrested on South Padre Island, Texas, in 1996, along with a teammate and fraternity brother, and indicted by a grand jury. The case was dropped 10 months later when the alleged victim declined to testify. The new news is that the Lions didn’t know, despite it being accessible via a search of public records. That’s concerning, although the Patriots didn’t know either, according to a statement released by Bill Belichick. It’s unclear if anyone in the NFL knew, and it’s unclear if it would’ve mattered, or should’ve mattered.
Again, Patricia wasn’t convicted, and the incident should not be an impediment to employment, legally or fairly. He said the issue wasn’t raised during interviews over the years and he wasn’t asked about it by the Lions. And if you’re innocent of a decades-ago crime, would you feel obligated to volunteer the information? I doubt it.
“I’ve interviewed for a lot of jobs, in engineering right after the situation happened, it was never an issue,” Patricia said. “It never came up as anything, because it was dismissed and I was innocent.”
It’s fine to say that’s how it should be, that the legal system ran its course, case over. And that may be exactly how it plays out, and perhaps how it should play out, in the absence of new developments. Wood told The News he supports Patricia with “1,000-percent certainty,” and that even if he’d known about the case, it wouldn’t have changed the Lions’ decision to hire him.
Without uttering a word, the Lions reaffirmed that during Patricia’s seven-minute news conference. The franchise’s top three people watched intently but didn’t take questions.
To Patricia’s credit, he took questions. He declined to go into detail about what actually happened in that hotel room when he was 21 and on spring break, and he expressed regret he didn’t have a chance to verify his innocence in a trial.
“Twenty-two years ago, I was falsely accused of very serious allegations, claims made about me that never happened,” Patricia said. “While I’m thankful on one level that the process worked and the case was dismissed, at the same time, I was never given the opportunity to defend myself, or to push back with the truth to clear my name.”
He responded appropriately Thursday and it was necessary, otherwise he’d be asked at every opportunity. He also addressed his team, and said he cited his own case as a teaching tool for the players. It’s a lesson of the times, that sexual assault rightly is treated more seriously, and while a statute of limitations may expire, reputations can forever be affected by all life experiences.
It’s a cautionary tale, and for the Lions and Patricia, that might be all it is. The NFL said it would review the matter, but stopped short of calling it an investigation.
Quinn was a first-time GM when he came here two years ago, and Patricia is a first-time coach. They have a deep bond, and there’s nothing wrong with hiring someone you know and trust, understanding you can’t know everything.
In a joint statement from Ford, Wood and Quinn, the Lions said they performed a “standard pre-employment background check,” and without a conviction, there was nothing to find. And frankly, barring more revelations, there’s nothing further to do.
“Thankfully, truth is on my side,” Patricia said. “I lived with the mental torture of a situation where facts can be completely ignored or misrepresented, with disregard to the consequence and pain it would create for another person. I find it unfair and upsetting that someone would bring this claim up over two decades later, for the sole purpose of hurting my family, my friends and this organization, with the intention of trying to damage my character and credibility.”
That’s a common complaint about the media, and it’s too cheap and easy. The intent was not to damage but to decipher, and determine if missteps were made, by Patricia or the Lions. It’s not a clean, pretty process, but in certain cases for certain allegations, it’s important to test the boundaries of truth and trust.