There’s no question Rutgers should have fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice for the disgusting conduct he displayed toward players in a video aired publicly Tuesday. Any coach who shoves players, throws basketballs at their bodies and yells homophobic slurs at them — as Rice did in footage taken from practices throughout his three seasons at the school — has no business guiding a program. In finally dumping Rice on Wednesday, Rutgers at least got that much right.

But as appalling as Rice’s actions were, the initial response by the Scarlet Knights also was pathetic. By merely suspending Rice for three games and fining him $50,000 in December after investigating what he viewed on the tape, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti displayed an even bigger failure of leadership. The whole Rutgers mess provides yet another sobering reminder about the warped nature of big-time college athletics.

Too often, the first instinct of some university officials is to protect their schools’ interests rather than doing what’s morally — and usually clearly — right when crises occur. When faced with potentially embarrassing situations, many decision-makers seem to first try to handle things as easily as possible for themselves. Minimize negative scrutiny, the thinking goes, in an effort to protect the brand.

The most sickening example of the-program-above-all-else mentality is of course the Penn State scandal. The most powerful people in Happy Valley could have done much more to protect the victims there.

Pernetti also operated from a bad playbook. Pernetti, who added to Rice’s slap on the wrist by ordering him to attend anger-management classes, declined to provide details of why Rice had been punished in December.

The firing of Rice on Wednesday actually would have been the correct call after watching a few minutes of the video Pernetti received from a former employee of the basketball program in November. Pernetti’s behavior from the moment he watched the tape soon should lead to his becoming a former university employee as well.

As Rutgers’s top athletic official, Pernetti should put the abused players first. Pernetti is responsible for their welfare. So after watching Rice berate players profanely while essentially using them for dodgeball practice, it’s impossible to understand how Pernetti could muster such a weak response unless you first realize that protecting the players wasn’t his main concern.

Rice was Pernetti’s first major hire. In picking a coach in football or men’s basketball — college’s revenue-producing sports — athletic directors tie their own future employment to how those coaches fare. If the soccer and lacrosse coaches don’t work out, so be it. But the guys who direct a school’s most expensive and visible programs had better be successful.

By any measure, Rice was failing spectacularly. In three seasons at Rutgers, Rice’s record was 44-51, including 16-38 in the Big East. This season, the Scarlet Knights were 15-16 overall and 5-13 in conference play.

Pernetti isn’t the first or last athletic director to back a loser. But in backing an abuser (Pernetti continued to support Rice after the season), Pernetti has put himself on the wrong side of the public opinion battle.

In a radio interview, Pernetti defended his stance to put Rutgers first.

“The most important thing I am factoring in is trying to make sure that we don’t do harm to Rutgers University, because we are a small slice of the pie here at this great place,” he said. “I don’t want to put any negatively on the university when we have a lot of real good things going on.”

If a university fails to protect its students, and then wastes an opportunity to set an example in removing an abuser from campus, none of its other accomplishments really matter much.

Success in football and basketball can greatly enhance a university’s overall image. Appearances in high-profile bowl games and the NCAA basketball tournament provide a financial windfall for some schools. When it comes to attracting donors and new students, nothing brings ’em in like winning.

What’s happening at Rutgers now, however, has brought the type of attention that only damages credibility. And with Rutgers being the state university of New Jersey, the people who run the state have every right to demand answers about the mistakes that were made.

Pernetti should be required to give a detailed account of the process that led to Rice keeping his job as long as he did. And if any other Rutgers administrators viewed the video before Rice was suspended and fined, they also should be held accountable for failing to go public with what they saw, or at least notifying officials outside the university about the situation. It seems New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has questions.

On Wednesday, Christie watched the video for the first time, “and he is obviously deeply disturbed by the conduct displayed and strongly condemns this behavior,” according to a statement. “It’s not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people, and clearly there are questions about this behavior that need to be answered by the leaders at Rutgers University.”

You get only one opportunity to do something right the first time. Rutgers missed its chance. That’s what happens when athletic departments forget about the athletes.

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