Rutgers athletic director is out amid furor over brutish coach. What lessons?

Friday's resignation of Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti is the fourth departure since a video surfaced of basketball coach Mike Rice meting out verbal and physical to student players. Some expect a broad ripple effect, as colleges beef up sports oversight.

Mike Derer/AP/File
In Feb. 2009, Tim Pernetti speaks to reporters after he was named the new athletic director at Rutgers University during a news conference on the university campus in Newark, N.J. Pernetti resigned Friday in the wake of Wednesday’s firing of basketball coach Mike Rice for abusive treatment of players.

Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned Friday, and the university’s governing board gave its full support to President Robert Barchi in the wake of Wednesday’s firing of basketball coach Mike Rice for abusive treatment of players.

Pernetti’s resignation followed the resignations of an assistant basketball coach and interim general counsel John Wolf, who had been involved in advising Pernetti when the videos of Rice’s behavior surfaced last fall.

Questions remain about the specific reasons a group of university officials and outside consultants did not fire Rice in the fall, but already lessons are emerging that university officials around the country should take to heart, various sports and higher-education sources say.

“This will be a whole new area of policy – this will ripple through college sports: There will be zero tolerance for physical abuse,” says Tom McMillen, chairman of the Intercollegiate Athletics Workgroup of the University of Maryland’s Board of Regents and a former basketball player. If governing boards of universities don’t already oversee athletics, they need to add that to the host of issues they attend to, and “boards need to be vigilant,” he says.

The Rutgers University Board of Governors has such a policy in its bylaws, which include oversight of “the overall development of student athletes.” The Monitor attempted to reach the board on Friday through e-mail but did not receive a response.

In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse revelations last year at Penn State, there was talk on virtually every campus about leaders’ responsibilities and institutional liability, but the Rutgers incident suggests more conversations are needed about broader categories of abuse, says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

In addition to “holding administrators to account for not protecting students,” she says, “we need to reflect on whether or not there’s a culture of tolerance for this kind of behavior [that Rice displayed] that goes beyond any one institution.”

Student players have come forward in recent days to defend Coach Rice’s approach as not out of the ordinary. In a parallel situation, Professor Staurowsky showed a video in class of a coach at Holy Family University in Philadelphia, a Division II school, roughing up a player and possibly even kicking him when he was down – and her students had a similar response. “They were accustomed to being pushed around and didn’t see anything wrong with it,” she says.

But adults at a university should be able to identify such behavior as wrong, says Catherine Lugg, a professor of education at Rutgers. The Rice incident should send a loud message to all universities, she says: “If you have clear evidence of abuse, act decisively and don’t cover it up.”

Professor Lugg teaches K-12 principals and superintendents and says a coach like Rice would be gone instantly if the behavior were known. “This was a huge failure of leadership.”

Pernetti’s mistake was to believe that protecting the school’s reputation was better achieved by keeping the Rice information internal rather than realizing that the school’s reputation is “tied to the welfare of students.” If protecting them “means firing a coach with a large salary, you do so,” she says.

In his letter of resignation, Pernetti said his first instinct upon seeing the video was to fire Rice, but the university “decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel.”

At a press conference Friday, President Barchi said Pernetti did not tell him last fall that his instinct was to fire Rice. 

As a new president, he said, he relied on his athletic director and legal advisers’ expertise. He said he first saw the video Tuesday night and was “deeply disturbed” by the abusive and pervasive behavior that “went beyond any threshold I would have,” and he fired Rice the next morning.

"This was a failure of process,” Barchi said. “I regret that I did not ask to see this video when Tim first told me of its existence," Barchi said. "I want to apologize to the entire Rutgers community for the negative impact that this situation has had on Rutgers."

"I also apologize to the LGBTQ community and all of us who share their values, for the homophobic slurs shown on that video," Barchi said. "I personally know how hurtful that language can be."

But Barchi urged that people would consider both himself and Pernetti in the bigger picture of their roles at the university. Barchi was brought on to create a long-term strategic plan for Rutgers. Pernetti, he said, “is a sincere and honest man…. I believe he has always had the good of Rutgers and its student athletes in mind in every decision he has made.”

Questions remain about who the outside investigators were and what their report said, considering that taxpayer money paid for it, says Staurowsky. State lawmakers have also said they’ll hold hearings on the matter.

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