WHY DID Rutgers fire Mike Rice? Was it because he exhibited inappropriate behavior or was the university protecting the school’s sports brand?
It appears that university officials may be more concerned with the perception of the school’s basketball program going awry. They needed to make sure they rid themselves of a major distraction. Mike Rice.
But with the firing there needs to be a couple of questions answered about the dismissal and the general state of big-time college sports. Are college presidents, chancellors, provosts and trustees out of control in their quest to be the best sports program they can be? What is the cost, not just financially, for a university such as Rutgers in terms of integrity in pursuing the world of big-time college sports?
If you need any more evidence that college sports are out of control, you need look no further than New Brunswick. One of New Jersey’s highest-paid state employees, Mike Rice, has been relieved of his job after a video of Rice using inappropriate language and also exhibiting inappropriate behavior was scheduled to appear on an ESPN show “Outside the Lines” and became public on Tuesday.
In December, Rice had been suspended for three games over his use of inappropriate language and behavior and was fined. Additionally, Rice was sent to anger management classes.
But the university did not go into any specifics about the suspension at that time and the Rutgers powers — the university president and the athletic director — probably believed the incident would be forgotten. At least that seemed to be the hope of two people who approved the suspension, athletic director Tim Pernetti and the university President Robert Barchi. Pernetti viewed a video of one of the team’s practices at which Rice used insulting language, threw basketballs at his players and pushed them around. The offensive language included homophobic slurs, which is an especially sensitive issue at Rutgers following the suicide of Tyler Clementi in 2010 after a video surfaced of Clementi with another man.
Rice was wrong to use a gay slur. In 2007, Rutgers was quick to react to shock jock radio announcer Don Imus’s demeaning characterization of the Rutgers woman’s basketball team and arranged for Imus to meet with the team to discuss the issue.
There is no rationale for Rice to put down a player or try to motivate a player with hateful, harmful words. The administration wrongfully coddled Rice and deserves to be singled out for not standing up and condemning Rice over the use of such words in December.
Imus was put on public display while Rice was given a three-game suspension, docked pay and sent to anger management with little fanfare.
In 2010 Rutgers needed a coach. Rice was a young and upcoming coach who did well at the mid-major level at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh and led the school to two NCAA tournament appearances. Rutgers was a big-time school and Rice was looking to move up. The school hired him and hoped Rice would get the team into the NCAA men’s tournament, where money is to be made and the school would get a big boost on the national stage. The hope was that impressionable high school sophomores and juniors would take a liking to the school and apply to matriculate in New Brunswick on the basis of a basketball team in a tournament on national TV.
Pernetti, who was a TV executive, took the Rutgers job in an effort to increase Rutgers’ viability within the big-time programs world. Pernetti delivered exactly what the people — the university board of trustees, the alumni, boosters, state political leaders, marketing partners and even Rutgers fans — wanted. Rutgers is now a member of the Big Ten Conference, which is made up of football factories including Ohio State and Michigan and big-time college basketball programs at schools such as Indiana.
It could be argued that Pernetti is the main reason that the Big 10 “expanded” to Rutgers as he was able to get the Big Ten to buy into the idea that Rutgers could deliver the conference to the New York market as a member and thus increase the Big Ten’s cable TV footprint from beyond the Midwest and into the nation’s largest market. Rutgers was accepted as a full member of the conference partially based on TV needs.
Rice isn’t the first coach to fall because for using bad language and pushing around athletes. The athlete, in taking a scholarship, understands that he or she is subject to the whims of a coach. The coach is just trying to get the players to perform better; after all, the coach is drawing down a huge salary and there is an expectation to win. A coach will use any trick in the book to spark his team. It appears that Barchi and Pernetti understood the sports code whereby the use of both verbal and physical assaults on players as a motivation tactic is acceptable.
Pernetti was fine with Rice last December. Then the video surfaced in Pernetti’s former medium — television. TV gives and TV takes. The Rutgers’ dirty laundry became public and the brand was tarnished. Rice had to go. There was too much of a risk of losing money and recruits if he stayed around.
The question now is whether the President and athletic director should also be shown the door. Both men in a sense looked the other way late last year when first presented with evidence of Coach Rice’s unacceptable behavior. They only acted when the matter became part of the public record. Their actions certainly don’t come across as reasoned and principled. It may be time for Rutgers to cut all ties to anyone connected with this sorry episode.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and sports columnist. His latest e-book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century” is available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel. Weiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.