Rutgers fires coach Mike Rice for abusing players: Will more heads roll?

Senior administrators at Rutgers were aware of a videotape of the Mike Rice tirades against players, but opted not to fire him. That decision is under heavy scrutiny now.     

Mel Evans/AP/File
Rutgers head coach Mike Rice reacts to play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Florida in Piscataway, N.J., on Jan. 17. Rutgers fired Rice on Wednesday, after a videotape aired that showed him shoving, grabbing, and throwing balls at players, as well as using gay slurs during practice.

Rutgers acknowledged the inevitable on Wednesday and fired basketball coach Mike Rice after ESPN broadcast video showing him throwing basketballs at the heads of players, shoving them around the court, and belittling them with a stream of expletives, including antigay slurs.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) had reacted with outrage to the video revelations, perhaps foreshadowing today’s dismissal.

“This was a regrettable episode for the University, but I completely support the decision to remove Coach Rice. It was the right and necessary action to take in light of the conduct displayed on the videotape,” said Governor Christie, in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

The question now is whether more heads will roll. Pressure to get rid of Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and president Robert Barchi appeared to be on the increase, even as Mr. Rice lost his job.

That’s because a former employee gave Mr. Pernetti the same video last November. After viewing it and having it analyzed by outside investigators, the AD suspended Rice for three games and fined him $50,000 – a punishment that, in the light of full disclosure, looks to have been too lenient.

After all, the only fact of the case that has changed since then is that the whole world has seen what Pernetti already knew. Yet, suddenly, that’s bad enough for the coach to lose his job, when it had not been before.

“I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice,” said Pernetti, in a statement. “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.”

Many commentators noted that the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, in which a former assistant coach sexually abused youngsters for years under the eye of the football program, should have warned Rutgers officials that the only proper response to the tape was immediate dismissal.

While the Sandusky scandal obviously was much worse in the sense of the degree of abuse, in both university officials seemed more interested in covering up the story than in redressing harm, writes USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan.

“Rutgers is a state school, supported by the taxpayers of New Jersey. I’d dare say you could have shown the video to almost every one of the residents of the state and received a more reasoned and thoughtful decision than the one rendered by Pernetti at the end of last year. For that reason alone, he must lose his job,” writes Ms. Brennan.

President Barchi, for his part, was told of the events at the time and supported Pernetti’s decision to suspend Rice, not fire him. Perhaps Barchi was worried that revealing a Rutgers coach had used anti-gay slurs would have produced unwanted scrutiny at the school, noted Sports Illustrated columnist George Dohrmann. It was only one year ago that a Rutgers student was sentenced to jail after he tweeted about watching his roommate kissing another man, which led the roommate, Tyler Clementi, to commit suicide.

“Barchi and Pernetti were surely aware that the news of Rice’s derogatory remarks about homosexuals would reignite that controversy, and that it would lead people to further question the university’s leaders,” writes Mr. Dohrmann. “Firing Rice in December would have had serious repercussions. So Barchi and Pernetti tried the easy route first to see if they could get away with it.”

But the ramifications of the Rice video may go further than the job security of those above him in the chain of command. Sports legal authority Michael McCann said Wednesday that individual players may now consider civil suits against both the coach and the university.

“Mike Rice fired may not be his biggest problem,” tweeted Mr. McCann.

And on Capitol Hill, two New Jersey lawmakers used the Rice incident to renew their call for passage of a national antibullying law named after Tyler Clementi.

The legislation would require schools to have antibullying policies, among other things.

“Rutgers made the right decision by finally firing Mike Rice for his deplorable actions and homophobic slurs, but more needs to be done to make sure this type of abuse is stopped and a strong code of conduct protecting students from such harassment is enforced,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D) and Rep. Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey, in a statement on Wednesday.

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