Rutgers University is working on damage control in the wake of the campus controversy it is currently embroiled in. The college fired its head basketball coach Mike Rice on Wednesday. The firing followed the mass media release of a video which showed repeated clips of Rice screaming obscenities and homophobic slurs at players, pushing and kicking them, and even throwing basketballs at their heads while conducting practices.
The videotape was supplied to ESPN by a former employee of Rutgers and was aired on the network’s “Outside the Lines” exposé program. The employee, Eric Murdock, had served as the director of player development until he was fired late last year. He claims that his firing was directly related to blowing the whistle on coach Rice last year when he provided the same video to Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti. He was expecting the school to take the matter seriously. Instead he saw Rice get suspended for 3 games and fined $50,000 and himself out of a job. “To see your coach physically putting his hands on players, physically kicking players, firing balls at players from point-blank range, the verbal abuse, the belittling, I was in total shock that this guy wasn’t fired, immediately on the spot,” he said. But the coach wasn’t fired at that point. Pernetti condemned the conduct of Rice to ESPN, saying that his actions were “unacceptable and… not to the Rutgers standard.”
“That’s why we handed out the significant amount of suspension that we did and all the things that came along with that,” Pernetti said.
But it would seem from the public outcry after the video’s airing, that Pernetti and the university did not do enough at the time. As news spread, many voices were heard speaking out. Governor Chris Christie said through a spokesman, that he was “deeply disturbed” by what he saw in the video. He went on to say that “the way these young men were treated by the head coach was completely unacceptable and violates the trust those parents put in Rutgers University. All of the student-athletes… deserve much better.” With state and national criticism mounting now four months after the tape was brought to Pernetti’s attention, Rutgers was forced to make the decision that Murdock and many others think should have been made months ago.
“I have now reached the conclusion that Coach Rice cannot continue to serve effectively in a position that demands the highest levels of leadership, responsibility and public accountability,” university president Robert L. Barchi said. “He cannot continue to coach at Rutgers University.” Pernetti answered criticism about the delay between this action and when Rutgers was first made aware of the situation. “I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice,” he said. “Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December, and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong.” Many students and faculty at Rutgers have been very vocal in interviews, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter about their dissatisfaction with how the university handled the situation. Twitter user @adamcox said he “always find[s] it really admirable when someone can do the right thing when everyone is looking.” There are letters circulating at Rutgers now calling for the resignations of both university president Barchi and athletic director Pernetti for their mishandling of the situation. As of this writing, the letter calling for Barchi’s resignation had 31 faculty signatures and the letter calling for Pernetti’s resignation had over 50 signatures.
Providing a bit of a puzzling counterpoint to the outrage was former MLB all-star Chipper Jones who stepped in to back Rice up on Wednesday, tweeting: “I got cursed at and called names by a ton of people growing up. Were they fired? Nope! Do I care? Nope! What’s the big deal? Toughen up!” He was back to defend his earlier statements today saying “Apparently mine and some people’s views of what verbal and physical abuse is, differs. That’s ur right. This is my twitter account.”
Despite what Jones seems to purport, it appears clear from the public response that this type of behavior should not be tolerated. Rutgers stood up and made the right call, even if it was later than many think it should’ve been. In a society that has begun to take a stand against peer bullying, student athletes, or any student should not have to endure abuse at the hands of a teacher, mentor, or coach. Rutgers is looking for a new basketball coach and Rice is looking for a new job. Rutgers seems to have learned a hard lesson. It remains to be seen if Rice has done the same.