Thrill of Victory

Rice incident prompts bigger questions for college sports

As much as Rutgers tried to hedge its bets and keep its options open, anyone who had seen the now-infamous footage of coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his players knew that the university had no choice but to fire him. Earlier today, the other shoe dropped, as Rutgers formally severed ties with Rice.

Now comes the predictable everyone-pile-on-Rutgers phase, not that it’s in the least bit inappropriate since Rutgers knew everything we now know months ago. As it turns out, one of Rice’s own assistants, Eric Murdock, blew the whistle on Rice before last season, handing the university ample evidence with which it should have used to fire Rice long before the court of public opinion practically did it for them.

Look, none of this should surprise us. If Penn State happened, anything can. When people have a lot of skin in the game, they usually figure out what they want to do, and figure out the “reasons” for that decision in later. In this case, the thoughts of Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti (who appeared to have snagged a rising star when he plucked Rice from Robert Morris in 2010) probably went like this: “He seems sorry and everyone deserves a second chance,” and, “He’s just trying to teach them toughness, and some of the players have no problem with it.”

In fairness to Pernetti, all of us have participated in that farce of a drill before, though almost certainly not as publicly or with so much at stake. Re-hashing why what Rutgers did was wrong takes about as much thought and skill as shooting fish in a barrel. So, let’s head a different direction and ask if it’s worth taking a more serious look at the stuff coaches do right in front of our eyes.

I want to be careful about painting with a broad brush, but Rice is hardly the only guy in the coaching profession who verbally abuses those around him. I’ve known good people who had anger issues in certain situations, some of whom got it under control later in life. But one thing that Murdock said about Rice that sticks out is is that he knew when he was being watched, and when he wasn’t being watched, and self-monitored his behavior accordingly.

Obviously, the fact that people better when being watched is no revelation for anyone over the age of 1, but it’s the implication of it that we should ponder, as any athletic director in the country with half a brain and a shred of integrity is probably doing today. If a coach is dropping f-bombs on players and officials in front of TV cameras, it’s probably fair to ask what goes on when nobody’s watching.

That leads us to the more important question: how much boorish behavior should a school tolerate from its coach?

The NCAA and its member schools are constantly parading its “student-athletes” in front of the cameras, never missing a chance to remind us how Inner City Johnny, who came from a broken home and spent his nights hearing gunshots whiz by his door, would be cast aside by life it were not for NCAA sports. I have no issue with that; if we’re going to admonish Penn State and Rutgers for bad deeds, it would not be fair if we couldn’t praise them for their good ones.

But education takes place outside the classroom, too, and for most athletes, the coach is far and away the primary professor. If we’re to praise the system for saving Johnny, should we not have equal concern when the primary influence in his life can’t exercise self-control when everyone’s looking?

Rice was retained for so long because he had potential to win. It was probably a better hire, on paper, that a Rutgers program that hasn’t been to an NCAA Tournament since 1991 could generally expect to make. Everyone knows that Rice would still be at Rutgers had that video not gone viral; it’s the public perception that did him in.

That’s the problem: perception is a fickle animal with no moral backbone. Bobby Knight’s 29-year Indiana career was remarkably similar to Rice’s much-briefer tenure at Rutgers, both in front of the cameras and behind them. Knight’s supporters justified the means because of the ends (“He’ll never cheat!” “He graduates players!”) in the same way that Pernetti made up his mind to keep his coach, but I’ve always wondered how many wins needed to be subtracted from Knight’s record at IU (he had 662 of them) before his other deeds became lost in the fog. It’s too bad, but not even a little surprising, that the Rutgers story played out in similar fashion.