I did a little bit of a double take on the Rutgers news this week. My initial reaction to reports of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice’s verbal and physical abuse of his players was pretty nonchalant; “Tough love,” I thought.
Then I saw the video. Fiery passion is one thing, but Rice’s callous disregard for his players as humans needed to be addressed.
It certainly was with his dismissal from the program on Wednesday, but the decision comes about eight months too late. It was a cover-up that dates back to July of last year, when athletic director Tim Pernetti was first presented with the possibility of such abuse against his student athletes.
The video is no revelation for Pernetti. He received the video on Nov. 26, months after a former employee described the abusive behavior to him. In it, Rice aims basketballs at his players, shoves, grabs, and kicks them, and tosses vile and homophobic language at them.
The only reason Rice is gone now is because the public got a hold of the video. At the time, Pernetti did not deem the incident worthy of termination, instead opting to suspend Rice for three games, fining him $50,000, and ordering him to attend anger management classes.
I’ll go ahead and deem that a cover-up. It’s similar to other scandals we’ve been faced with, Penn State’s child abuse case at the hands of Jerry Sandusky sitting at the forefront.
These cover-ups tend to exacerbate the problem. Although Penn State was much more shocking and tragic in its nature, the scandal that rocked Happy Valley could have been lessened if someone in the university’s administration had taken some more initiative. Instead, a cover-up that trickled down to the late, formerly venerable patriarch of Penn State football—Joe Paterno—completely uprooted a once-proud athletics program.
Rutgers is similar in that negligence delayed the proper dismissal of Rice back when this issue first surfaced. For that, I’ll agree with the consensus that Pernetti needs to be held accountable and similarly dismissed for his culpability.
From a basketball perspective (clearly, the least important aspect of this scandal), the firing may have been a blessing in disguise for a Rutgers program headed to the Big Ten after this season. He’s not that great of a coach. Rice took a Robert Morris team to the first round of the NCAA Tournament twice and parlayed it into the head coaching gig at Rutgers in 2010. Since that time, the Scarlet Knights have failed to finish better than 11th in the conference while featuring an embarrassing attrition rate of key players. Given this video, it’s no wonder the number of transfers was not even higher than the four wise souls that left the program for greener pastures.
The reverberations will ultimately affect Pernetti, as they should. Even if the schools’ higher-ups are pleased with his move to send Rutgers to the Big Ten, this outweighs it. This was a mistake on his part, and a preventable one at that.
This week, people are pointing to the gruesome injury to Kevin Ware as an example of the NCAA taking advantage of its student athletes. Coaches are making millions, athletic directors hundreds of thousands, and the schools themselves benefit greatly from the revenues. But the actual players are put in jeopardy and it’s not simply a monetary matter anymore.
Rather, this type of physical and verbal abuse is jarring. It is exploitation in its own right, with players having no leverage against their highly paid coaches. If a Rutgers player wanted to keep his scholarship, gain exposure to professional scouts, and get his education, he sure as hell was not about to speak out against Rice.
The rules, simply put, are different for people in power. Take Florida Gulf Coast University coach Andy Enfield as an example. By no means did he do anything wrong, as he bolted for 10 times the salary at USC. He can do so right away without any repercussions. Then turn to former Scarlet Knight Gilvydas Biruta, who transferred to Rhode Island before last season. Britua had to sit out a year, even if his reasoning was an abusive coach.
This incident in particular falls on a poor hierarchy at Rutgers. As an athletic director at a major university, Pernetti failed to look out for the student-athletes’ best interests. It’s a disturbing trend that’s all too familiar to the exploited student athletes. Firing Rice and Pernetti would be a good start, but it’s far from a permanent solution.