05/29/2013 03:51 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

A Student-Centered Athletic Culture?

Once again President Robert Barachi is on the hot seat. He chose Julie Hermann as Rutgers' new Athletic Director in a move designed to restore integrity to Rutgers' beleaguered athletic department. Hermann replaces Tim Pernetti, who resigned under pressure for not responding more decisively to a videotape showing basketball coach, Mike Rice shoving his players, throwing basketballs at their heads, and berating them with slurs. Maybe Barachi wishes he had Pernetti back. Hermann, it appears, may have been abusive herself, something that Rutgers' search committee was unaware of when they hired her. The search committee, in fact, viewed Hermann as the answer to an athletic department culture more protective of coaches than players. In a press release announcing the search committee's decision, Kate Sweeney, the co-chair, noted that the "committee was particularly impressed with Julie Hermann's student-centered approach to athletics."

Less than two weeks after Herrmann's selection, Hermann's "student-centered approach to athletics" was challenged in a New Jersey Star-Ledger story, which published a copy of 16-year-old letter written by former student athletes, who alleged that they suffered "unbearable mental cruelty" while Hermann was their volleyball coach. Players recalled reading that letter to Hermann and the women's athletic director, Joan Cronan, in an intense and uncomfortable meeting. Hermann denies knowing about that letter. She also denies the allegation in the letter that she called her players "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled." "For sure, I was an intense coach," she explained, "but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abusive behavior."

Kim Tibbits, Hermann' assistant coach at Tennessee upholds Hermann's side of the story, "I was by Julie's side in every meeting and every practice, and she never did what they're saying. What they are saying is not true. She was the most supportive coach. She loved those kids. What I'm hearing and seeing now is just shocking." Cronan said that couldn't recall the letter itself or the high drama of the team meeting that precipitated Hermann's departure. She does remember, however, that the players were somewhat "disgruntled." But she attributed their displeasure as "frustration" at their team's lack of athletic success.

Cronan couldn't have been too bothered by the student athletes' discontent because Hermann went on to become an assistant coach for USA Volleyball before becoming an Assistant Athletic Director at the University of Louisville. Louisville Athletic Director, Tom Jurich, who hired Hermann admits knowing that "things didn't end well at Tennessee" but that "everything was clear sailing" after speaking with the AD at Tennessee and the coach of the Olympic Team under whom Hermann coached while still at Tennessee. He admitted, "She is intense" but added, "I don't know a coach who isn't."

Those who defend Hermann, including Hermann herself, see her as the real victim in all of this. Without a videotape like the one that led to Rice's demise there is no way of verifying the players' story. All we have is the testimony of the student athletes themselves, all of whom received counseling following their unanimous expression of "irreconcilable differences with their coach." The only controverted part of this unfolding story is that none of the administrators, who vetted Hermann as she rose up the administrative ladder, ever bothered to ask her players why "things didn't turn out well" at Tennessee.

If we can learn anything from this latest Rutgers controversy, it is that in a "student-centered" athletic environment, the student athletes ought to be consulted and taken seriously, particularly when allegations of abuse arise. Students may well be in the best position to help the athletic community to determine the difference between being intense and being abusive.