Rutgers Needs to Fire Out-of-Control Coach Mike Rice. Now. [UPDATED]
[UPDATE 11 a.m. 4/3/13: Rutgers announced they were firing Mike Rice a few hours after this post published.]
I know nothing about college sports—I should say that up front. I went to a Tier III school and even there, the closest I came to playing anything was when I was asked to join the rowing team because they needed a midget type as coxswain. I like basketball but I don’t pay attention until I fill out a March Madness bracket, which for me is kind of like making a big Z out of the dots on the SAT answer sheet. I’m pretty clueless.
But every now and then, the topic of college sports hits my radar in a big way, like when a famous coach known for his kindness and charity to children turns out to be a pedophile.
Penn State was an eye-opener for me, and I’ll admit my naiveté on the subject was pretty staggering. I didn’t actually know who Joe Paterno was beyond “some coach somewhere.” Jerry Sandusky’s name was equally vague. When I first heard the details of the scandal, I was confused. Why wasn’t Sandusky fired months or even years before? Was the Penn State HR department operating under obscure directives? What was all this talk about seeing Sandusky in the bathroom with the kid and then letting “JoePa” decide what to do? If you see a kid being raped, don’t you just yell, “Hey, asshole, stop raping that kid” and call the cops? It was like reading about a bunch of Martians. People had to explain the culture to me. “Think of the Vatican,” one person said, which was a helpful in terms of the basics: the secrecy, the one man at the top, the integrity of the whole above the safety of the one. Of course, it’s a preposterous analogy in any real way, since one is a university sports team and the other is a nation state representing a world religion. But many people at Penn State couldn’t tell the difference, which was a large part of the problem.
Now we’ve got a new college sports scandal—this one at Rutgers. It doesn’t have to turn into the total mess that Penn State was, but that depends largely on whether Rutgers’ Athletic Director Tim Pernetti fires basketball coach Mike Rice, something he should have done the first time he saw the incriminating video of Rice abusing student players at practice in November. Instead, the only person who lost his job was Eric Murdock, the guy who made that incriminating video and reported the incidences as early as the summer of 2012. Once again, it seems a university HR department was unclear on what people in their profession are meant to do.
The video shows Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice yelling at players, shoving them, grabbing them, firing balls at their heads and bodies, berating them, and at one key point, using a homophobic slur. Interestingly, we’ve made so much progress with gay rights, that the slur seems to have been the primary motivating factor behind the $50,000 fine and three-game suspension Pernetti handed down to Rice in December, as though the rest of the behavior wasn’t equally appalling.
I can imagine Pernetti saying: “Listen, Mike, I know you’re passionate, but when you’re yelling at them, you gotta be careful, you know? Because the gay thing—I mean, everyone likes the gays now. So just watch your language.” Meanwhile, he’s pummeling their faces with basketballs.
Rice should have been fired the minute Pernetti saw that video, and if the team was at a fancy school and the players came from wealthy families, I believe he would have been. Instead, Pernetti made a gamble that he could control things. He knew these kids were being treated that way and he chose to let it go on. But if I were a parent of one of the students and I saw the way Rice touched my child, I would be furious. Who is he to put his hands on them that way?
Now the video has gone viral and Gov. Christie is upset. The pressure is on, so Pernetti might as well take this opportunity to rehabilitate college sports scandals by approaching this one with integrity and actual consideration for the human beings affected. Pernetti should take a firm, immediate stand and say:
“We have fired Coach Mike Rice. That kind of behavior does not represent Rutgers Athletics, the university, or the state of New Jersey. Our students deserve better, and they will get it. Any time a coach shoves a player, he insults not only that player, but the entire university. All students should be treated with dignity and respect.”
I may not know anything about college sports, but I do know about PR and public apologies. If Pernetti is decisive, Rutgers can succeed where Penn State failed. But the time for action is now—not only because it’s a smart move politically, but because it’s the right thing to do.