The firing of Rutgers University head basketball coach Mike Rice on April 3 for physically and verbally abusing his players since he was hired in 2010 has evolved into a full-blown national scandal that extends beyond the sports columns. It is but another example of the ill treatment of student athletes, especially under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, where lucrative profits and prestige reign supreme — a fact of life for all sectors of capitalist society.
The abuse emerged during more than 200 hours of videotape of at least 50 practice sessions. Rice was shown kicking, throwing basketballs at and shoving his players. He could be heard cursing and using offensive anti-gay slurs. This is the same university where Tyler Clementi, a gay student, committed suicide in 2010 after footage went viral on the Internet of him being intimate with another male student.
A former director of player development at the New Brunswick, N.J.-based university, Eric Murdock — who witnessed Rice’s behavior — submitted a letter to the Rutgers administration last July expressing his concern for Rice’s players. His contract was not renewed soon afterward. Murdock submitted a 30-minute compilation video showing Rice’s abuse to the athletic department Nov. 26. According to the New York Times, Murdock was given this tape by the university following his dismissal.
Once the tape was seen by several university board members, the school’s legal counsel and other officials, Rutgers initiated an investigation. In January, the university’s lawyers issued a 50-plus page report on the investigation, after interviews with Rice’s assistants and players.
Prestige & profit come first
The real underlying motive for this investigation was to determine whether Rice created “a hostile environment” that could result in future lawsuits against the school and whether Murdock was unlawfully terminated from his job.
For many years, Rutgers did everything it could, like building a state-of-the-art stadium, to increase its chances of being accepted into the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference. Such acceptance would bring more prestige to the university, along with millions more dollars for the school’s athletic program.
Conclusions from the report include that some of Rice’s actions did “cross the line” and “constituted harassment or intimidation.” The report also said Rice was “passionate, energetic and demanding” and that his intense tactics seemed genuinely aimed at improving his team and “were in no way motivated by animus.” (New York Times, April 6)
What really got lost in the bottom line of the investigation was the terrible abuse suffered by the players.
Rather than immediately firing Rice, then athletic director Tim Pernetti imposed a three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine on him in December. This is minor punishment for such a major offense, especially considering that Rice’s annual salary was over $650,000.
Murdock then sent the tape to ESPN, the largest sports network in the U.S., with a huge worldwide reach, which aired it on April 2. Once the video was exposed to millions through TV and the Internet, Rice was dismissed within 24 hours. Two days later, April 5, Pernetti was forced to resign as athletic director.
Pernetti has since said publicly that he was pressured to keep Rice on the payroll, while officials reportedly responded that Pernetti did have the authority to fire Rice. A looming question is, if the videotape had never emerged, would Rice still have his job today? The university made the decision to pay Rice the remainder of his contract, which is $100,000.
Murdock filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in state court against the school April 5. It claims his dismissal violated New Jersey’s employee protection act because his firing was based on retaliation for his blowing the whistle on Rice. Murdock has named the school, Rice, Pernetti, Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi and former President Richard L. McCormick as defendants in the lawsuit.
‘Normalized’ racism and abuse
The FBI has begun an “investigation” of Murdock, who is African American, accusing him of attempting to extort almost $1 million from the school in exchange for not exposing the tape.
However, while this scandal continues to unfold, there is virtually no legal protection for student athletes when it comes to abuse from coaches and authority figures. In his April 8 blog column, “The Soul of Sports: Why Fox News & Former Players Defend Former Rutgers Coach Mike Rice,” progressive sports columnist Dave Zirin points out that bullying student athletes is the norm in U.S. sports culture. Zirin quotes some of Rice’s former players who stated that “this kind of abusive behavior is a normalized part of high-level youth sports.” (thenation.com)
Zirin wrote, “These are young men raised in a highly lucrative prep-to-pros pipeline where authority is never questioned, abuse is expected, and corruption is inevitable. The fact that this relationship of power and powerlessness involves predominantly white coaches and predominantly black players is about as coincidental of race as who sits where in a prison cafeteria.”
NCAA Division I basketball teams are 61 percent Black, while less than 25 percent of head coaches are Black.