Bracket-busting upsets and big time buzzer beaters aside, the term “March Madness” took on a whole new meaning this week when ESPN’s Outside The Lines aired video of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing players during practice. The footage, which went viral in less than 24 hours, clearly shows Rice shoving, kicking and punching players, violently grabbing their jerseys, throwing balls at their heads and yelling extreme obscenities, including homophobic slurs. Overnight, Rice’s derogatory epithets and assault on members of the team have caused a media frenzy, a virtual firestorm of questions and judgement aimed at the Rutgers University athletic department; all viewers left wondering how anyone could still be calling this man “coach”.
Video proof of Rice’s outrageous behavior was originally revealed to Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, in December of last year. After witnessing the coach’s tirades, hearing him refer to players as “f***ing fairies and f****ts” and having director of player development Eric Murdock express his sincere concern, Pernetti deemed a three game suspension and a $50,000 fine an appropriate punishment. Disturbingly enough, the director of athletics did not land on this sanction alone. Robert Barchi, the president of the university, was brought in to review the incident at hand and agreed with the minimal suspension and financial penalty, a drop in the bucket for a coach in the middle of a five-year contract for which his upcoming season would pay him $700,000.
When the news of the suspension broke, Pernetti was vague, citing the reason behind the three game lay-off as “inappropriate behavior and language” without mentioning any specifics. Regardless of the troubling footage, the director stood behind Rice, even saying that he never considered firing him for his actions. With Pernetti in his corner, the head coach’s behavior was little more than a blip on the radar as he continued on in his position, bullying his team every step of the way. That is, until the eyes of the whole world fell upon him.
By Wednesday afternoon, less than a day after the initial practice footage was shown, everyone from prominent sports reporters and news outlets to governor Chris Christie and Lebron James had made their outrage known. With their feet being held to the fire, Rutgers University quickly jumped ship, announcing the immediate dismissal of Rice. The action, however, has granted little reprieve from the nationwide criticism, with many calling for the examination of and eventual dismissal of Pernetti for his lack of aggressive investigation into the issue and, ultimately, his decision to allow Rice to keep his job.
Rice’s behavior is completely inexcusable and the university’s decision to fire him has come too late. Aside from the fact that he is facilitating a culture of bullying and hate, his mental, physical and emotional abuse of student athletes is disgusting. His appalling actions have motivated three players to leave the program, transferring to other schools, and his coaching tactics foster the worst stereotypes that exist in the world of athletics. While Rice’s actions in and of themselves are offensive at best, it just may be that the lack of action against him is the most disturbing part of this story.
As of late, there has been much discussion around the behavior of young adults, specifically high school and college athletes. Stories of inappropriate and illegal behavior, bullying and rape are beginning to surface at an alarming rate. The behavior exhibited is not to be brushed under the rug or excused, but it might be time to step back and take a look at the example that is being set for the generation under scrutiny.
Immediately following the sentencing of two Steubenville football players tried for the rape of a classmate, parents and community members did nothing to hold back their outrage over the boys conviction, despite the damning evidence against them. In fact, coaches and esteemed members of the town had been covering up a trail of unfavorable behavior for some time, solely because the young men were members of the highly touted football program. The trend continues now, with Pernetti allowing Rice to carry on as head coach even after seeing his outrageous behavior. By covering up the continual berating of student athletes, Pernetti fostered the belief that his actions were nothing more than inappropriate, ultimately continuing to set the precedent that with the right authority in your corner, your actions have little consequence, no matter how damaging they may be. How can we expect young adults to understand right from wrong and the notion of consequence when adults in leadership positions don’t set the same standard?
To clarify, I am not comparing Rice’s actions with the rape of a young girl, but there is a link to be drawn in regards to the examples adults in prominent positions are setting within each situation. In addition to the people in positions of power, the response that these incidents have elicited from the general public does not give the warm fuzzies. Thankfully, a large majority of the nation has reacted with outrage in regards to Rice’s behavior, but comments in his favor do exist. Arguments such as “This type of coaching happens everywhere and anyone who tells you different is lying,” and “This is just intense coaching; we don’t raise men anymore. This is the ‘p***ification’ of sports” have shown up in comment sections under video footage. These parallel the infuriating “Boys will be boys” utterance surrounding the Steubenville case. Quite simply, we talk a great deal about young adults, discussing whether we think “the kids are alright.” However, recent events may sway our opinion, force us to wonder if it is, in fact, the adults who are not alright.
I am the proud daughter of a high school football and basketball coach who helped take our small town teams to a state championship and numerous years of conference titles; many of his team members were elite high school athletes, moving on to play their sports at the college level. I had the great pleasure of spending my years at university working for the athletic communications department at a Big 10 school where I had the opportunity to observe and write about highly touted football and basketball programs. Rice’s behavior is not simply intense coaching. It is not “tearing players down to build them back up” and it absolutely does not happen everywhere. Coach Mike Rice’s actions are bullying and hateful and should be treated as such.
I applaud the media frenzy that has erupted in response to Rice’s actions and Pernetti’s lack of action, as well as Murdock’s integrity and courage. Murdock stepped up to defend his players, even when no one else would, and is now finding the support he sought long ago when trying to right a severe wrong. While Rice has apologized for his behavior since his firing, remorse is only half of the lesson the nation should wish to teach. The other half? Good people make mistakes but if you do the crime, you pay the time because inappropriate actions have real consequences. No cover ups, no exceptions.
Feature Image via NBC Sports