Athletes are the victims in Rutgers scandal, and school officials all wrong

Former Rutgers head basketball coach Mike Rice, fired only after video of him abusing his players became public. (Mel Evans/AP)

What makes me saddest about the latest college sports program to turn a blind eye to abuse is how meek those Rutgers basketball players look on the video, just taking it as their coach heaves the ball hard at their ankles, or chest, or head. They show no reaction as he, looking deranged, shoves, pummels, and showers them with gay slurs. They’re used to it, obviously, and barely flinch.

Their coach, Mike Rice, who was only fired after the video of all this went viral this week, could not control himself, but did control their scholarships. He was in charge of every aspect of their lives at college, and would have had a say, too, in what became of them after graduation. I’ve written a lot about abusive college athletes, but it’s the so-called adults in the room at these institutions who I often find most worthy of blame.

They set the tone, they draw the boundaries, or don’t. In theory, they are there to lead, not enable, and to protect their students rather than their stats or their status. At Rutgers, though, we see in high-def the culture these athletes are steeped in, and how little school officials are concerned about their well-being.

The collegiate sports culture is not so much about the athletes themselves as about what they can produce for their sponsors, and if they sometimes seem entitled, well, maybe that’s because they’ve been trained and molded by immature bullies like Rice.

Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti keeps saying that he initially chose to keep Rice on as head basketball coach even after viewing hours and hours of tape of him in action because “it was a first offense.”

That’s untrue on its face; this was no one-time blowup, but a seemingly endless series of ugly moments, indisputable only because they were captured on video.

Pernetti also denies that the Rice underling who reported his boss’s lack of self-control was fired for doing so: Instead, Pernetti insists that whistleblower Eric Murdock, who’d been director of player development, is no longer at Rutgers because he was “insubordinate” for showing up at a player clinic where Rice didn’t want him — oh, I’ll bet he didn’t — and that after Murdock then failed to show up for work, his contract was simply not renewed. Got it?

Pernetti was asked on ESPN whether he wasn’t told last summer about the problem, months before he saw the tape and decided to let Rice stay in his job anyway. “There were conversations” the previous summer, Pernetti allowed, but no real proof of a problem until November, when he saw the video.

We’re also expected to believe that school officials had no idea that one star player had already decamped as a result of Rice’s abuse — had transferred rather than be routinely referred to as a “Lithuanian faggot.” That was Rice’s “nickname” for Lithuanian-born Gilvydas Biruta, Murdock told ESPN. Biruta himself told the network that, “It wasn’t about my game. It was about me as a person.” But is anything really about these young men as people? And after being treated like that, is it any wonder some of these young athletes behave disrespectfully, too?

Rice so frequently let anti-gay name-calling fly, according to Murdock, that he even berated a 10-year-old at a camp for younger players that the flip-flops he’d shown up in “are for faggots.”

That all this was tolerated after Penn State and at Rutgers, where freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself three years ago, after his roommate filmed and posted his romantic encounter with a man, makes the whole thing even more inexcusable. And though we know homophobia doesn’t come from nowhere, do New Jersey taxpayers really have to fund it?

That Rutgers President Robert Barchi was told about the tape and didn’t ask to see it is a pretty good indication that he didn’t want to know any more.

Even now, some sports fans argue that it’s Rice who’s the victim, of over-the-top political correctness, and that Pernetti’s job is surely safe, given all the good work he did getting Rutgers into the Big Ten starting next year.

Right up until the truth came out, it was easier for Rutgers officials to suspend Rice for a few games, send him to anger management, and to pretend, as Pernetti said, “to reeducate him on the Rutgers standard.”

I’d say we’ve all been reeducated on that high bar now — and have learned, too, that Rice will get a $100,000 bonus on top of his $622,500 salary for having completed the season.

At least alums, students and faculty aren’t locking arms and pretending none of this is happening; more than a dozen current faculty members have called for Barchi’s firing.

And once again, as in the case of the passed out 16-year-old who was taken advantage of by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, it’s video that has made abuse impossible to deny and harder to defend.

What these young men were subjected to on the basketball court from someone who was supposed to be forming them and pulling for them is no more right than any of the cases of abuse perpetrated by athletes have been.

In fact, the suddenly contrite Rice, holding back tears and babbling about his poor family, reminds us of the low bar set by the “leaders” who sometimes train them. It all starts at the top at universities like Rutgers. And it needs to end there, too.

Melinda Henneberger
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Mary C. Curtis · April 4, 2013