Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 7, 2013

At Rutgers, Just One More Bad Day For College Sports

On Monday night in Atlanta, Louisville and Michigan will take the court for the championship game of this year’s NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament, the annual April denouement to March Madness. Some 74,000 fans will be packed into the Georgia Dome, many of them with seats so far from the action that they will need binoculars to follow the play. More than 20 million will tune into the CBS broadcast, making this the second most watched event in college sports behind only the BCS title game every January. But because college football’s Bowl Championship Series operates independently of the NCAA, the basketball tournament is the highlight of the Association’s year and crucial to its operation. More than 80% of the NCAA’s annual revenue comes from its contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to televise March Madness.

One can expect to see a number of feature stories during the broadcast, heartwarming tales of young athletes overcoming poverty or a broken home to emerge as stars. Whether Louisville wins or loses we are certain to be treated to repeated shots of Kevin Ware, the Cardinals guard who suffered a gruesome broken leg during the Regional Finals game against Duke. Jim Nantz will no doubt remind us how Ware urged his teammates to “go win this game” even as he lay on the floor in agony. In and around what will hopefully be an exciting basketball game, it will all be a view of big-time college sports through heavily tinted rose-colored glasses.

What we will not hear about on Monday night is the dark side of college athletics, fueled by the voracious appetite of university administrators for ever larger paydays and the willingness of too many to treat their primary assets, the young men and women who don the school’s colors and take to the court or field or rink, as so much chattel. Unfortunately for the NCAA that side has been exposed, or more accurately exposed yet again, over the past few days at Rutgers University.

Last December Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti announced that he was suspending basketball coach Mike Rice for three games and fining him $50,000. The announcement came out of the blue, and since Pernetti offered virtually nothing by way of explanation the action seemed more than a bit odd. On the other hand, because Pernetti offered virtually nothing by way of explanation the media quickly moved on.

What we now know is that in late November, after months of trying to do so and being rebuffed, Eric Murdock, a former assistant coach whose contract was not renewed after the 2012 season had met with Pernetti and other Rutgers officials and presented them with a DVD showing Rice shoving and grabbing players, throwing balls at their heads, and berating them with gay slurs during practice sessions. During the months that Murdock and his attorney were trying to meet with school officials, Rutgers was engaged in a conference mating dance with officials from the Big Ten. The culmination of that courtship came less than a week before the November meeting with the announcement that the school just a short drive from New York City would join the predominantly Midwestern conference in all sports.

The last thing that Rutgers officials wanted was any scandal that might scuttle their chance to seize a piece of the Big Ten’s television contracts. So they quietly suspended Rice and hired a law firm to investigate the basketball program and outline the school’s legal options. While that report was completed in January, it wasn’t made public until last Friday. The report focuses on the legalistic fine point of whether Rice created a hostile work environment and gives every indication that the University was more concerned about protecting itself from law suits than determining whether their coach’s actions should be tolerated.

Perhaps Pernetti, Rice, and what we now know are a number of other school officials who saw the DVD, including at least one member of the board of governors, believed that all of this dirty laundry would stay in the hamper. They apparently didn’t consider the possibility that Murdock, the unhappy ex-employee, might not have given them his only copy of “Mike Rice’s Greatest Hits.” Last week Murdock let ESPN take a look, even as he was filing a wrongful termination suit against Rutgers. Less than a day after the sports network began broadcasting clips from the DVD Mike Rice was fired. When that did little to calm the outrage, Pernetti was the next to go, engaging in mutual recriminations with University President Robert Barchi even as he headed for the door.

As he tried to save his own job, Barchi said that when he watched the DVD last week “it took me five minutes” to decide to fire Rice. But he also steadfastly claims that he did not watch it until just last week, having passed on the opportunity to do so in November because he trusted Pernetti to handle the matter. Since he acknowledges that the Athletic Director had told him the nature of the clips on it his failure to take the time to see for himself in November suggests that it is possible to be both stupid and a college president. Meanwhile the law firm’s report commissioned by Rutgers includes its own examples of idiocy, suggesting at one point that the half hour DVD, culled from hundreds of hours of videotape of team practices, presents scenes “taken out of context.” Unfortunately the report does not go on to explain in what context it is appropriate for a head coach to fire basketballs at his players’ heads or assault them with gay slurs; all the more so on a campus where two years ago a gay student took his own life after a bullying incident.

Of course nothing changed on the DVD between November and April. The only change was that a concerted effort to keep the ugly scenes from public view failed. Because of that Rutgers officials who like far too many college administrators on campuses with major sports programs, cared much more about television contracts and stadium naming rights and the financial lure of jumping from conference to conference than they did about their student-athletes, had their misplaced priorities exposed for all to see. The sorry Rutgers story won’t be one of the features on CBS Monday night. But it should be.

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Responses

  1. Mike,

    Good column. The only fly in the ointment is Murdock is being investigated for trying to extort one million from Rutgers. What a mess. In the meantime let’s hope the maze covers the bluegrass. Chuck

    • Yes Chuck there are no heroes or good guys in this sorry mess. Thanks for reading.
      Mike


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