Morality clause a possible issue in coach case

MSU baseball coach Andy Cannizaro addresses the team during practice
Staff Writer

The resignation of Mississippi State baseball coach Andy Cannizaro puts a new spotlight on clauses frequently used in contracts, especially for high-profile positions in businesses and industries that depend heavily on public support or funding.

Known as a "morality clause" or "personal conduct clause," the language usually prohibits actions that would reflect negatively on the business, institution or product and can range from social media postings to sexual behavior to drug use and criminal acts.

It's unclear whether the university specifically used such a clause in its dealings with the coach, but Cannizaro, who was three games into his second season after leading the Bulldogs to a surprising Super Regional appearance last year, resigned early Tuesday morning, citing "poor decisions" on his part.

The kinds of unconfirmed issues that are the subject of gossip relating to Cannizaro frequently are at the heart of a "morals clause" in a contract, lawyers say.

"Every situation is different, every contract is different, every business or institution is different," said West Point attorney Michelle Easterling.

"When it's an educational institution, the morals clause has wide latitude and usually includes any conduct of romantic or inappropriate sexual contact, whether the person involved is a student or co-worker or person in the community," Easterling continued, noting it sometimes can be open to interpretation.

The clauses have been in use since at least 1921, starting with movie actors and actresses.  Babe Ruth had such a clause in his 1922 contract with the New York Yankees. Their use has increased in the last two decades and now they are a part of almost all education, entertainment or sports-related contracts. They've also been used increasingly to punish athletes for actions on and off the field. 
Universities use them in contracts for professors, as do most community colleges and even many local school districts.

Media outlets, especially TV stations, have them as regular parts of their contracts for reporters and on-air personalities.

It's difficult to pinpoint a single reason for the increased use, although social media and 24-hour news cycles certainly are factors, lawyers say.

"Sometimes the original action may not be very egregious, but it can be compounded by other mistakes, such as lying when being confronted by the employer," explained Columbus City Attorney Jeff Turnage, noting the standards often are more enforceable in the private sector than the public sector unless they are discriminatory. "That's the act that often causes the real trouble.

"And every standard and business is different. At some places, an extramarital affair may be grounds for an admonishment, at others it may be termination. Every circumstance leads to the next," Turnage continued.

Many cities use morality clauses in their employee handbooks in the form of social media policies and bans on nepotism. Columbus, for instance, has disciplined employees for social media violations and don't allow dating within the same department.

"We have enforced it numerous times, sometimes to some sad sets of facts," Turnage said of the city's policies.