Grinding Gears: Swann’s actions are once again tone deaf
Eric He is a senior writing about current events in sports. He is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs Mondays. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with Lynn Swann signing autographs for money in Virginia as he did last weekend. A lot of former athletes, especially accomplished ones like Swann, hold autograph sessions, connect with fans and capitalize off of their fame in the process. Even under the best of circumstances, a university athletic director going out of their way to make cash from autographs is a bad look, considering that none of the student-athletes who make up the entirety of the program are allowed to do the same. It is, at best, what one might call “bad optics.” Signing autographs is not a fireable offense. But when put in context with the myriad other eyebrow-raising decisions, it’s hard to argue against the notion that there is surely someone else more qualified and self-aware to lead USC’s athletic program. Thus far, Swann has done more to harm USC’s reputation than improve it, which is hard to do at a school with a historic sports legacy. He has proven to be tone deaf — both in his decisions and public statements defending those decisions — and he has repeatedly declined interview requests from the Daily Trojan and other media outlets. Swann did release a statement later in the week defending his “brief weekend trip back East,” a sign that he does care about optics — once they are already bad and beyond defensible levels. He said that during his trip, he was “constantly connected with people at our university.” He claimed that not showing up would have been a breach of contract because he had agreed to attend the event months prior — which is ironic because he prioritized the optics of not showing up to an autograph session higher than the repercussions of leaving USC for a weekend in the midst of a crisis. USC, right now, is not a program — or, for that matter, a university — operating under the best of circumstances. The men’s basketball team didn’t qualify for postseason play for the first time in three seasons. The football team finished the regular season under .500, missed a bowl game and somehow took an even bigger “L” in the offseason when Kliff Kingsbury said, “thanks, but no thanks” to the offensive coordinator position. And the entire school is reeling from the fallout of the college admissions scandal in which Swann’s senior associate athletic director and legendary water polo coach were both arrested for their alleged participation. But the difference here is that Swann is not just another retired athlete; he is the University of Southern California’s athletic director. In the statement, Swann said the Times article “would have you believe that I traveled to sign autographs with no concern for what is going on at USC. Nothing could be further from the truth.” But this is more than just signing autographs. This is about not firing head coach Clay Helton after a 5-7 season. This is about the embarrassment that was the Kingsbury episode. This is about Swann admitting to the Times that he was “blindsided” by the college admissions scheme despite the fact that Donna Heinel was third-in-command in the athletic department. The problems that are enveloping USC are bigger than Swann, and he is not solely responsible for everything. But as the head of the athletic department, Swann is one of the faces of this University. Considering this is USC, where the athletic director has as much — if not more — clout as the interim president, the president-elect or any other University leader, Swann’s actions reflect upon the entire school and negatively impact its reputation. That’s fair and appropriate. But to put this in layman’s terms: There is a time for you to go out and have fun and there is a time that you stay home and take care of business. This was not the time to go out. Not with the issues surrounding USC and the athletic department. Not with the optics of how it would look. And not with Swann already under fire for multiple recent decisions. According to the Los Angeles Times, Swann was invited to a retreat in Santa Barbara with University trustees and senior leaders to discuss governance issues, though he was “not required to attend” and had discussed the matter with Interim President Wanda Austin. From bad, to worse, to worser. And Lynn Swann is all the way across the country, signing autographs.