Mike Rice, Tim Pernetti and the leadership madness at Rutgers

Former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice spoke with WCBS-TV about the videos that show him abusing players and the university's decision to fire him.
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 3, 2013

The Rutgers University men’s basketball team didn’t make it to the NCAA tournament this year, but the school is grabbing March Madness headlines. Unfortunately, it’s for the crazy news of how physically and verbally abusive the team’s coach had treated his players, and the university’s initial response to it.

On Tuesday, the ESPN program “Outside the Lines” aired a segment on Rutgers coach Mike Rice that included a video of him hurling basketballs at players’ heads and feet, verbally attacking them and using homophobic slurs in his on-the-court rants. After the video was initially shown late last year to the university’s athletic director, who has said he showed it to the university’s president, Rice was suspended for three games, fined $50,000 and asked to attend anger management coaching.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

By Wednesday morning, however, the fury over the video — which prompted public outrage from many including Governor Chris Christie and NBA star LeBron James — led Rutgers to finally fire its coach. In a statement, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti said, “I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice. 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. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community.”

Now that Rice has been fired, the real question isn’t whether or not the coach should have a job (he obviously shouldn’t) but how closely Rutgers will review the actions of other leaders after Rice’s slap on the wrist last year. After all, there are a number of ways Pernetti’s decision put the university’s reputation, not to mention its students, in harm’s way.

Let’s start, as we should, with the athletes. College hoops may be a cutthroat sport, and intense coaches may be part of the game. But hurling balls from point-blank range at players’ bodies crosses the line. Any coach who does that is failing at their No. 1 job: to motivate, develop and — one would hope — protect the safety and the trust of the student athletes in his or her charge. Pernetti should have seen that.

Second, Pernetti’s judgment on protecting the program’s reputation is short-sighted. If the video came out — and Pernetti reportedly said in a radio interview that he knew that “it was going to get out there” — why would any talented young player choose to go to Rutgers in the future? That it would publicly surface was a good bet in today’s social media world, so why would Pernetti risk keeping Rice on staff? Dealing with the fallout of losing a poor hire is a lot easier than dealing with the repercussions of appearing to cover it up.

Finally, it is the job of Pernetti and any other administrators who knew of the video to protect the reputation of the university. That’s especially the case when the employee in question is shouting homophobic slurs at a school where a gay student committed suicide last year. You don’t do this by suspending a coach for a short period of time. You do it by holding that coach to the same standards you would hold any other employee were they to berate students or hurl objects at their heads. You relieve them of their duties.

Pernetti explained in his statement that he chose to try to “rehabilitate” Rice, who was given anger management coaching. If the coach had only thrown a ball once, or had made a couple of angry comments to another employee of equal stature, rehabilitation might have been a wise choice.

But in a university setting, the repeated and disturbing behavior by Rice toward students-who should always come first-seems like it would provide any leader with an obvious decision. That’s why some sports observers think Rice’s job shouldn’t be the only job lost. At the very least, I agree with New Jersey State Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, who said, “the decision not to dismiss him last year needs a complete and thorough review.” Any leader who appears to have put a coach before the health and well-being of students needs to be closely examined himself.

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