In September 2001, the Arizona Board of Regents had a deep discussion on the proper role of athletics at the state universities.

They brought in an outside ethicist to help them think through the dilemmas associated with pursuing the universities’ core academic purposes while also running big-money athletic programs. It was uncomfortable, the accounts of the day show.

Then-University of Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood was put on the defensive in that session. He was asked awkward questions by ethicist Michael Josephson, like whether the women’s golf program is really necessary.

The discussion veered into other touchy subjects like coaches’ salaries and financial incentives.

Later, Livengood explained to the Star: “The Board of Regents wants to look into athletics, and that’s good. That’s their right; they are our governing body. But I am wondering how we are going to change the shape of the world of college athletics from Arizona.”

Now we know another reason that Livengood might have been feeling squirrely about athletics, money and ethics in those days.

As my colleague Greg Hansen revealed last week, about 10 months before, Livengood and then-UA President Peter Likins had engaged in what Likins called “compassionate subterfuge” to pay longtime football coach Dick Tomey upon his departure.

What that meant is they pretended to want to fire Tomey so that he would receive the $600,000 in salary for the remaining three years of his contract. Really, they explained to Hansen, it was Tomey’s decision to resign and walk away from the program, which would have meant the UA owed him nothing. But he chose to leave because of growing public pressure due to the team’s poor season and failure to reach a Rose Bowl.

Likins and Livengood seem to have tired of being viewed as the heavies who drove away the man now viewed as Arizona’s best, most honorable football coach. But by solving that problem, they’ve raised other issues, like whether it’s all right for university executives to lie in order to protect an employee from himself, and who in society actually catches breaks like this.

But the most pressing question is whose money paid for Tomey’s severance. Unfortunately, we have not been able to confirm that detail yet. Most likely, based on experience, the money came either from the athletics department budget or from boosters. Either way, it was probably not directly from taxpayers since the athletic department is funded by TV contracts, ticket sales, merchandise sales and the like.

In any case, the fact that they lied in order to spend $600,000 in severance on a football coach is ethically questionable, no matter how nice a guy that coach was. If Tomey, who died in May this year, wanted to resign and forgo the payout, that decision was really up to him. Still, the two regents I was able to reach from that era were not particularly troubled by the trick Likins and Livengood pulled, even though it was really a trick on them.

“When I think back to my eight years on the Board of Regents, it does bother me that I was deceived, but I thoroughly understand the motivation of President Likins. He was an outstanding U of A president, and I forgive him,” said Chris Herstam, who was a regent from 1998 to 2006.

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After reading Hansen’s column on Tomey, former regent Judy Gignac recalled the 2001 ethics discussion.

“I remember one time the Board of Regents brought in this ethics expert. I understand ethics, and I understand reality, and for this man, everything was either black or white. There was nothing in gray. I’m one of these people who see things slightly differently, sometimes in shades of gray,” said Gignac, who served from 1994 to 2002. In her mind, she said, Likins and Livengood “did the right thing.”

These opinions tend to focus on the service of one man, Dick Tomey, to the UA. But if you broaden your field of vision on the issue, there remain troubling aspects to the revelation. For example, it reinforces the perception that when you reach a certain status in society, you will be protected, even from your own choices.

At the highest reaches, you get treatment like that of the recently fired CEO of McDonald’s, Stephen Easterbrook. He acknowledged having a consensual relationship with an employee that violated company policies. The company’s board fired him — and gave him the equivalent of $41.8 million in severance pay, shares and other equity.

At the university level, severance payouts to coaches and executives have become a growing financial burden. Former UA president Ann Weaver Hart received more than $800,000 for doing not much at all after stepping down under pressure in 2016, my colleague Justin Sayers reported in September.

In 2017, Kevin Sumlin, Arizona’s current coach, received a payout of $9.9 million after he was fired by Texas A&M, his former employer. In an effort to avoid a similar outcome, Sumlin’s contract with Arizona requires him to seek work if he’s fired by the UA and for any income he makes to offset whatever payout he is due.

It’s annoying that people at these levels are protected even in failure, even from themselves. It wouldn’t be so bad, though, if the rest of us across society had such protections. The people at the bottom of the income scale, not the top, are the ones who need them most.

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.