By now, millions of people have seen the video tape compilation of Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice shoving his players and hurling balls and verbal abuse (including homophobic slurs) at them during practices from 2010-2012. That tape, originally presented to Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti in November, resulted in a three game suspension for Rice in December. But the public surfacing of the tape and the uproar that has ensued in the past 24 hours (including critical comments from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) ensured Rice's firing, which happened this morning.
The pressing question now will be Pernetti's own future job status. In media appearances in the past 24 hours, including on WFAN in New York with Mike Francesa and with Jeremy Schaap on Outside the Lines, Pernetti spoke like someone more interested in covering his behind than in giving a forthright accounting of what happened. Most notably, Pernetti's professed concerns and priorities betrayed how low a priority he gave to the well-being of his athletes in all of this. Though it's long overdue, the sports media in general have woken up to the myriad inequities facing college athletes, especially in football and men's basketball where coaches, schools, sponsors and media make billions of dollars (and ADs at big-time programs do quite nicely as well), while the athletes themselves get relatively little in the bargain. But Pernetti's attempts to explain himself demonstrated the degree to which, when push comes to shove, the athletes are often an afterthought.
Pernetti told OTL that he knew of the allegations against Rice last July, because Eric Murdock, the former Rutgers basketball director of player development who was terminated or not renewed (depending on whose version of events you believe), told him of Rice's abuse of players at that time. However, Pernetti told OTL that he needed "proof" before he could take any action. It was in November that Pernetti was presented with the tape leading to the review resulting in Rice's suspension.
But when Pernetti spoke to Francesa yesterday afternoon, he denied what he admitted to OTL. Pernetti told Francesa, in response to a direct question, that Murdock "never came and spoke to me about any concerns he had." Later, when Francesa asked about this again, Pernetti said "he never came to complain to me about the head coach." Only the most charitable characterization of these evasions would be considered anything other than a lie. It's possible that Pernetti was saying that Murdock never complained while he was employed at the university (Murdock's employment ended there in July). But he certainly made no effort to clarify that to Francesa or his audience. He stated quite clearly that he took action as soon as "we were made aware" of the transgressions. But what Pernetti is referring to his first viewing of the tape, not the first time, he admitted to OTL, that Murdock raised the concerns.
In this matter, as in others, Pernetti appears to have been concerned, first and foremost, with minimizing the damage from the scandal, not acting in the best interests of the basketball players. Pernetti told Francesa "I am always trying to protect the interests and the reputation of the university" and later emphasized that his priority was "what gives us the ability to be effective going forward in men's basketball and more importantly what protects the university." Of course, that is part of his job. But it was revealing that at only one point in his 10-minute conversation with Francesa did he actually express specific concern for the players themselves. And that was in an obviously self-serving context near the end of the conversation. Francesa asked Pernetti whether he'd thought about releasing the tape in December, when he suspended Rice. Pernetti said: "We didn't release the tape in December because there's current and former student athletes on there, and I didn't want to create a negative situation for those guys... I was trying to protect their best interests." Francesa, who is sometimes a dogged and even incisive interviewer, was asleep at the wheel yesterday, so failed to ask basic follow-up questions, like: "how the hell does withholding the tape protect the interests of the players?"
On Mike and Mike this morning, Mike Greenberg noted that, among the problems with Rice's conduct was the relatively powerless position the players are in. They are being abused by a well-paid coach (whose actions were almost surely known to the AD already, even if he didn't see visual evidence of it until later) and their recourse is what, exactly? Transfer and sit out a year because they are trying to flee a complete jackass? Pernetti expressed disgust at Rice's conduct yesterday and insisted the coach had been held accountable, via a fine and three game suspension (here's a list, by the way, of infractions that resulted in three game suspensions for NCAA athletes, including failing to submit paperwork on time. Now that's accountability!). But Pernetti never really acknowledged that the coach had fundamentally and repeatedly abused his authority. In fact, and astonishingly, he kept referring to what Rice had done as a "first offense," as if Rice's abuses were a one-off event, rather than a repeated pattern of behavior over two years. And it's worth noting that the three games Rice sat out were against UAB, Howard and Rider, three easy home games in December against weak non-conference opponents, putting Rice back on the sidelines for the Big East opener against Syracuse in January. Not exactly a lethal blow to the program.
Rice was a goner as soon as the tape emerged. The fact that this was such a no-brainer is already strikes one and two against Pernetti's own judgment. But strike three was his own conduct yesterday. As people tried to make sense of why he thought it was OK for a documented serial abuser to keep coaching young athletes at Rutgers, Pernetti dissembled, side-stepped and evaded both responsibility and the truth. If the interests of the university include everything but the well-being of the athletes under the coach's charge, then maybe Pernetti's actions in December and subsequent attempts to explain them make sense. But if athletes well-being is anything more than an afterthought, Pernetti's conduct throughout and his performance yesterday were a disgrace.