The Detroit Lions were compelled on Wednesday to issue late-night statements of support from team owner Martha Firestone Ford, general manager Bob Quinn and team president Rod Wood following the unearthing of an indictment of new head coach Matt Patricia from an incident that allegedly occurred 22 years ago.
Patricia also issued his own statement in defense of charges that were raised against him at the time by a woman who said that Patricia, then 21 years old, and another Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute football player “burst” into her South Padre Island, Texas hotel room and took turns sexually assaulting her.
On Thursday, Patricia, 43, faced the media on the matter, first reading a prepared statement and then answering a handful of questions on what happened more than two decades ago. The whole thing lasted about eight minutes.
“I am here to defend my honor and clear my name,” Patricia said. “Twenty-two years ago, I was falsely accused of something very serious … very serious allegations. There were claims made about me that never happened.”
The report was dug up by the Detroit News. The case was never tried. A Texas grand jury indicted Patricia and his teammate on an aggravated sexual assault charge — a felony — in August 1996. Although a trial was scheduled for late January 1997, the accuser opted not to testify, saying she didn’t believe she could “face the pressure and stress of a trial.”
No victim to testify, no case. The prosecutor dropped it.
The file went into a large file cabinet and gathered dust for more than two decades. In that time, Patricia went from undersized, unknown college offensive linemen to a man now considered one of the bright, young defensive minds in the NFL.
Patricia indicated Thursday that he first addressed the Lions’ players prior to speaking with the media and assured them he was innocent of those charges and that he was indeed their unquestioned leader, backed by the organization’s full support.
“I am 100 percent the coach of the Detroit Lions,” Patricia said.
The first-year head coach, who spent the previous 14 seasons as an assistant with the New England Patriots, said questions about the incident in 1996 never arose in any interviews he’s had over the years. Patricia earned a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from RPI in 1996, graduating shortly after his spring-break trip took place.
He also interviewed for engineering jobs outside of football and worked for two years as an application engineer with Hoffman Air & Filtration Systems in East Syracuse, New York, receiving other job offers in the field before deciding he wanted to get back into football — first as a defensive line coach at Amherst in 1999, then with Syracuse in 2001 before joining Bill Belichick’s staff in 2004.
Wood said the Lions did a “complete background check” on Patricia in their vetting of him as a candidate for the job but admitted that their digging “was limited to employment matters only” and did not go beyond looking for “criminal matters that don’t result in a conviction or a plea agreement.”
Patricia affirmed on Thursday that no one in the Lions’ organization knew about the charges or the incident and that he was not untruthful in any statements he gave while being interviewed, including whether he was ever arrested. Whether Patricia should have proactively mentioned the incident and the charges to the team when he was interviewed — or even after he was hired — is another debate altogether.
When Wood was reached by a News reporter for comment regarding the report, he said was unaware of the charges once brought against his star coach, initially saying, “I don’t know anything about this.” Only a few hours later, Wood hardened his own belief that hiring Patricia was the right move for the team and that he was confident that the charges were much ado about nothing.
“I am very comfortable with the process of interviewing and employing Matt,” Wood said, per the report. “I will tell you with 1,000-percent certainty that everything I’ve learned confirmed what I already knew about the man and would have no way changed our decision to make him our head coach.”
The statement from the Lions’ brass — Firestone, Quinn and Wood — and the one from Patricia strongly denied culpability from the spring-break incident years back.
“Responding to a published report this evening from the Detroit News, the Detroit Lions are aware that a criminal charge involving sexual assault was brought against Matt Patricia in 1996,” the statement from Firestone, Quinn and Wood reads. “Matt was 21 at the time and on spring break in Texas. The charge was dismissed by the prosecutor at the request of the complaining individual prior to trial. As a result, Coach Patricia never had the opportunity to present his case or clear his name publicly in a court of law. He has denied that there was any factual basis for the charge. There was no settlement agreement with the complaining individual, no money exchanged hands and there was no confidentiality agreement. In discussions today with Lions management, the reporter involved acknowledged that the allegations have not been substantiated.
“As an organization, the Detroit Lions take allegations regarding sexual assault or harassment seriously. Coach Patricia was the subject of a standard pre-employment background check which did not disclose this issue. We have spoken to Coach Patricia about this at length as well as the attorney who represented him at the time. Based upon everything we have learned, we believe and have accepted Coach Patricia’s explanation and we will continue to support him. We will continue to work with our players and the NFL to further awareness of and protections for those individuals who are the victims of sexual assault or violence.”
Patricia doubled down on his own innocence, saying he lamented not having his day in court to clear his name.
“As someone who was falsely accused of this very serious charge over 22 years ago, and never given the opportunity to defend myself and clear my name, I find it incredibly unfair, disappointing, and frustrating that this story would resurface now with the only purpose being to damage my character and reputation,” Patricia said. “I firmly maintain my innocence, as I have always done.
“I would never condone any of the behavior that was alleged and will always respect and protect the rights of anyone who has been harassed or is the victim of violence. My priorities remain the same — to move forward and strive to be the best coach, teacher, and man that I can possibly be.”
By the law, Patricia is an innocent man. The case was never tried. The victim apparently has no interest in reliving anything that may or may not have happened. As the Lions noted, there was no civil settlement, no out-of-court payoff, no deal worked out in any dark room between Patricia, the woman or their lawyers.
Yet sadly, we don’t have much else to go on here. The police report apparently is missing or badly incomplete, “discarded” according to the News. The principles in the case all seemed to have amnesia on the event occurring — including the police chief, lieutenant, grand jury forewoman, prosecutor, assistant prosecutor and defense attorneys. Patricia’s accuser also reportedly failed to respond to attempts to speak about the charges that were raised at the time.
It reached the indictment stage — in football terms, that’s about halftime — and prosecutors were preparing for trial. Then the case was dropped. This happens more than you’d think. And it happens for various reasons. The mystery remains, even with the strong statements from team and the accused.
To assume Patricia’s guilt in the matter is unfair and legally irresponsible. To believe that this isn’t news until it isn’t is wildly dismissive. We’re left with a lot of questions here, likely most of which never will be answered.
Here’s one: How did Wood convince himself so thoroughly in the span of a few hours that there was nothing to see here? Surely, he talked to Patricia. Maybe even to one of Patricia’s lawyers, who also spoke with the News and issued a clunky retort.
“In my opinion, it was a fabrication,” Wilson said. “I’m telling you it was a ‘he said, she said’ [case]. I don’t know what type of problems the girl was having; I don’t know why she made that allegation. We vehemently denied that he was doing anything wrong or did anything wrong.”
But there’s only so much digging, beyond talking to people in his inner circle, that Wood realistically could have done in such a short time period. That he came back so strongly in support of his coach is notable. But that Wood gathered so much perspective so quickly also appears surprising. That the Lions’ statement would include a rather odd phrasing — “Matt was 21 at the time and on spring break in Texas” — is not the type of excuse that tends to hold much water in the #MeToo era that remains a fervent movement.
Patricia’s doubling down, especially the part where he speaks of having never been given the opportunity to defend himself and clear his name, also can’t be overlooked. If he truly was a victim of false accusations, it would be a terrible thing that could sully his reputation forever. It’s likely that whether or not new information comes to light, this will be embossed to Patricia’s name.
Patricia said on Thursday that the incident was “traumatic” for him, speaking of the “mental torture” it caused him and adding that he was “raised the right way” and does “not condone any of the type of behavior that has been alleged” of him.
“Thankfully, the truth is on my side,” Patricia said. “I was innocent then and I am innocent now.”
But if we discover later that there was truth to what the alleged victim said, this can’t be ignored. Neither the passage of time nor the imperfections of the American legal system should be used as excuses.
Right now, this story is a standalone conundrum. It’s concerning and yet confusing. If more details arise, or if we find out that Patricia was involved in anything else with anyone else over the years, it’s absolutely an indication of a pattern and a justifiable reason for dismissal.
But if not, if this is all that we have to chew on, there’s good reason to think that this is something we will debate and discuss but never really achieve full clarity. And that’s the toughest part, especially as Patricia maintained his innocence, lamented his own victimhood in the case and yet looked like a man who very much wanted to put this story to bed — again.