University of Virginia President Facing a Critical Crisis Decision

Less Than a Week after Three Players are Killed, Should Saturday’s UVA Home Football Game Be Played as Scheduled?  

11/16/22 – – Leaders are tested in times of crisis. No one knows that better than Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia. The UVA community has been dealing with a tragic event on campus that took the lives of three students Sunday evening. So far, President Ryan’s actions have been decisive and well received. But he has another important decision to make that illustrates the challenge of leadership in the eye of a storm.

This Saturday, November 19, The UVA football team is scheduled to play Coastal Carolina in the university’s on-campus Scott Stadium. As of Tuesday evening, there has been no announcement regarding the status of Saturday’s game.

The ultimate decision to play or not to play rests with one man: Jim Ryan. What would you do? Let’s put ourselves in President Ryan’s shoes.

Following the typical media lifecycle of high-profile crises, fact-based, event-driven coverage has become secondary to assigning culpability and pointing fingers. But here’s what we know now:

On Sunday evening around 10:30, a bus bringing a class of UVA students back from a field trip to Washington D.C. arrived on campus. A student named Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., one of the passengers on the bus, allegedly shot five other student passengers, killing three — D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler — and seriously wounding two others. We’re still not sure what motivated Jones, who fled from the scene. Perry, Davis and Chandler were all members of the football team, as are, we believe, the two wounded students. Jones had previously been on the football team in 2018, during his freshman year. 

Within minutes of the shootings, all staff and students were instructed to “shelter-in-place.” By all accounts, the university’s crisis alert systems and protocols worked well. The campus remained locked down for more than12 hours. Jones was apprehended Monday morning miles away by law enforcement. All classes were cancelled for Monday and Tuesday, as was Monday evening’s UVA basketball home game against Northern Iowa. Psychological services are being provided. There have been emotional vigils held and banners of support displayed across campus.

Saturday’s scheduled football game against nationally ranked Coastal Carolina is UVA’s last home game of the season. (Ironically, UVA has only one game left after Saturday, an away contest against Virginia Tech, where in 2007 a student gunman killed 27 students and five faculty before taking his own life.) As is the case with most universities fielding major Division I teams, UVA’s football weekends are a very big deal. Tens of thousands of alumni, students and area fans show up on campus and spend millions of dollars with vendors and Charlottesville businesses dependent upon the traffic. Many are still recovering from the 2020 season, during which attendance in the 61,500-seat Scott Stadium was limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to these considerations, President Ryan must consider the message his decision will send.

Cancelling or postponing the contest would recognize the level of grieving experienced by the football players who lost their teammates and the members of the UVA community shocked, frightened and saddened by this senseless event. On the other hand, there will be people who believe strongly that the game must be played to demonstrate the university’s resilience and honor the memory of the fallen football players. Cancelling the game would delay healing, reward the gunman and encourage other deranged individuals to carry out such acts.

What should President Ryan do?

In Chapter 16 of “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient” (Guiding Your Response with First Principles), I offer this leadership advice:

“In formulating a crisis response, a company’s leaders (and that includes communicators) should identify the ‘first principles’ that will guide all actions and messages. It’s important to determine who and what your organization is protecting in the midst of the storm. A company’s culture and core values are tested in crises. Response strategies should be built around these beliefs.”

I also point out that a crisis is a terrible situation to experience alone.

Even the most self-confident, decisive leaders reach out to trusted colleagues to broaden their view and verify assumptions. In Ryan’s case, he is appropriately focused on how the football team feels. Do the players and coaches want to play on Saturday? Are they able to continue their season? UVA Athletic Director Carla Williams and Head Coach Tony Elliot reported at a press conference on Tuesday that they have been meeting with the players, who have not practiced since the shootings. They confirmed that they will be part of the decision-making process.     

So, what should President Ryan do? Maybe you see this as an easy decision. Maybe not. Ask members of your family, friends or colleagues to weigh the facts, consider the options and see what they would do. Ask them how they determined the best course of action. What were their first principles? The exercise will sharpen your crisis response skills.

Our prayers are with the families of the young men who lost or are fighting for their lives, the entire UVA community and President Ryan.   

UPDATE – 11/16/22: UVA this morning announced that Saturday’s game against Coastal Carolina has been cancelled. No decision has been made regarding the football team’s last game of the season, which is against Virginia Tech, at Virginia Tech.

UPDATE: 11/22/22 – – The University of Virginia has cancelled its final football game of the season against Virginia Tech.

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