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Something Rotten in the State of Rutgers

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It is hard not to get blasé about certain stories, especially sports-related ones. When people first heard of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his Scarlet Knights players, some may have dismissed it without delving into details. Many of us who have been on teams remember that coach, no matter what the sport, who may have been physically and verbally aggressive and or abusive. Since we have been through it, we figure it is just standard procedure; however, that shouldn’t have been the case then nor should it be now.

You may ask, “So what did Rice do that was so bad to get him fired?” The answer is to go to the videotape, one shown on the ESPN show Outside the Lines, and you get to see all you need of his behavior. Rice is not only physically and verbally abusive, but he also uses homophobic slurs. Rice’s actions are what his defenders may think are “motivational” or part of a coach’s practice playbook, but some of us know better. Coaches like this are in a position of power and they particularly enjoy abusing that authority at the expense of their players.

What makes things go from bad to worse may start you thinking about what happened back at Penn State, when a lucrative football program and its coaches were protected at the expense of young people who had been abused. That was a completely different case involving sexual abuse, but the similarities are that higher officials in a university saw a need to keep things quiet to keep the cash cow mooing.

Now we hear that Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti has “resigned,” which comes in the wake of his not handling the situation with Rice more decisively and quickly. Pernetti’s claim to fame at Rutgers is that he brought his team respect by engineering its rise, with a move from the Big East into the Top Ten (starting in 2014), which will mean big, big bucks for Rutgers. No wonder Pernetti fiddled while Rice’s tactics were still burning, no doubt worrying that firing Rice would bring damage to the program. As with Penn State, we have heard these excuses before.

Pernetti says now that when he first saw the videotape that his idea was to fire Rice, but that Rutgers’ “university lawyers” got involved in the process and that delayed action. Pernetti claims that university policy would not “justify dismissal” of Rice, but that seems like an excuse of a man desperate to salvage something of his reputation.

Speaking of which, we now have Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi talking about how he didn’t see the video until last Tuesday, causing him to fire Rice the next day. If this all seems incredulous, think of the timeline: Pernetti learned of this behavior last summer from Eric Murdock (the program’s director of player development), then Pernetti saw the video in November, and the end result was what Pernetti said was “a suspension of three games and a $50,000 fine.” Perhaps the reason none of this surfaced until the video appeared on ESPN was because the powers that be wanted the season to go on without interruption, but it does seem a little suspicious now that all the excrement is hitting the fan.

As the plot indeed thickens, Murdock was let go by Rutgers, though he says he was fired for revealing Rice’s behavior and has a lawsuit against the university pending. In a plot that seems rather Shakespearean in scope, all the players appear to be in danger of ending up on the floor after a swordfight. Besides Murdock, assistant coach Jimmy Martelli also “resigned,” for he too was seen on the video being abusive. As we move toward the denouement that is yet to be decided, we wonder if Barchi will also be eliminated as a means of eradicating all who were involved in this matter.

All of this has to get us thinking about sports and its increasingly important role to higher education as a source of revenue. As we witnessed at Penn State, the football program there held an almost sacred place in the university, and Joe Paterno was seen as a saint until the Jerry Sandusky debacle. Now Rutgers has Mike Rice to thank for scrutiny, and the dominoes will continue to fall as more of the truth is revealed, and once again the sacred turns to profane.

One thing is for certain, university coaches should be held to the highest standards possible. If we didn’t learn anything from Penn State, perhaps Rutgers will provide that teachable moment that will facilitate change. Coaches all over the country (no matter the level) should take heed of this moment. Abusiveness is not motivational; it is denigrating and destructive. Rice, Martelli, and Pernetti have learned that the hard way. Perhaps Barchi will as well because it seems the stink goes all the way to the top at Rutgers.

Now, for the sake of the athletes in programs everywhere a new scrutiny should emerge, and deservedly so. As kids many of us endured this kind of thing and thought we did it for the team, but really it was nothing more than a coach’s swollen ego that put us through that torture. This should change and it should happen immediately; otherwise, we will be doing a disservice not only to all the students in current programs but also those entering them in the future.

Photo credits: AP

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.