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Rice has to go ... and he's not alone
Are you kidding me?
How could the Rutgers athletic director have seen even a whiff of the damning practice videos of head coach Mike Rice bullying his basketball players — footage that was aired Tuesday on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” — and given the coach only a three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine?
How could even one incident of a coach putting his hands on his players happen without the aforementioned coach finding himself facing no-tolerance probation at the very least?
How could this ever happen at an athletic program that’s part of a supposed “institution of higher learning” where the school motto is, “Sun of righteousness, shine upon the West also”?
There is nothing righteous here, but plenty to be ashamed of. What’s shameful is not just Rice’s maniacal abuse of his players but the embarrassing slap on the wrist the university gave the coach four months ago. Especially when the dozens of hours of practice video footage that ESPN culled through showed Rice kicking and shoving his players, firing basketballs at them from close range, and screaming at them that they’re “fa--ots,” or “mother----ers,” or “pu—ies,” or “c---ts,” or a "f------ retard," on top of the occasional ethnic slur and telling a player he hoped he would get injured. Especially when Rice already had a fiery reputation when he came to Rutgers three seasons ago from Robert Morris, where he once was caught on camera chasing referees off the court after a game. Especially when Eric Murdock, a nine-year NBA veteran who was the former director of player development for Rutgers, came to the administration to tell them about Rice’s behavior — and was fired in July.
There’s a dirty secret here, however. There’s a bigger problem that this represents in college sports: The knee-jerk reaction from institutions tends to lean toward protecting the institution and its highly compensated insiders over its “student-athletes,” the silly phrase the NCAA always insists on calling these semi-professional basketball stars no matter how often they go to class.
The wrist slap Mike Rice received for his egregious behavior is just one more example of how so many institutions exploit their “student-athletes” to line their own pockets and embellish their own reputations.
Look, I understand that this is how the model is set up. I don’t think all coaches are flat-out abusing their players to make their own millions; in fact, I think college coaches seldom act like Rice did to his players. Louisville’s Rick Pitino is known for his courtside intensity and his tough practices, but the deep and real affection he has for his players was never more evident than after Kevin Ware’s horrific injury in Sunday’s Elite Eight game. Pitino wept alongside his players, and it was not done for the cameras. The same could be said for a coach whose public perception is that of a bully, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins; the moment in the 2010 Final Four game against Duke where Huggins stayed on the floor for several minutes, consoling the injured Da’Sean Butler in a painful, beautiful moment of coach-player empathy, should be the defining image in the hard-edged coach’s career.
Just because a coach yells at his players doesn’t mean a coach doesn’t care for his players. Nobody can beat South Carolina coach Frank Martin in a screaming contest, and yet his players become like family to him.
The best coaches toe the line between toughness and tenderness. When you toe any line, you’re prone to cross it occasionally. Cross the line a bit and that’s when a slap on the wrist is appropriate. But when you flat-out pole-vault over the line like Rice did at Rutgers – not just once, but apparently again and again and again, egregiously and despite being called out for it by his assistants, according to the ESPN report – there are no excuses left.
There’s a hero in this Rutgers story, and it’s the whistleblower. There should have been a second hero in this: Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, the man who’d hired Rice three years ago. Pernetti should have ignored that much of his own reputation was staked on the success of a man he’d given a five-year, $650,000-a-year contract to revive Rutgers basketball. Pernetti should have fired him on the spot. That would have been the right thing to do. A lesser but still acceptable thing would have been for Pernetti to air publicly the specific grievances against Rice and institute a zero-tolerance policy going forward, as Indiana had done toward the end of the Bobby Knight era.
Instead, Pernetti swept it under the rug. After a week-long investigation, he fined the coach less than 10 percent of his annual salary, and made him sit out three games. The public reason for his suspension could hardly have been more vague: “inappropriate behavior and language” toward his players.
So, Rutgers, it’s time to do the right thing, even if it’s belated. Fire Mike Rice for treating his players as less than human. While a coach needn’t coddle his players, no coach should be able to get away with the exact opposite, of bullying his players to the point that at least three transferred and, according to Murdock, even more lost interest in basketball.
And for good measure, fire the man whose slap-on-the-wrist, protect-the-institution mentality made the entire university complicit in one coach’s anger management issues. It would be a good statement for the NCAA to hear, that the players are, in fact, more important than the machine,
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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