Mike Rice Rutgers Scandal: Is There a Rush to Judgment?


As someone who has covered just about every sports scandal over the last 25 years, I have to say that I think the sports world is overreacting a bit to the Rutgers/Mike Rice episode.

First, if you haven’t seen it, I have to warn you that Rice’s abuse of his basketball players–pushing them, throwing basketballs at them and using anti-gay slurs–is uglier than Joan Rivers ragging on Angelina Jolie.

There isn’t any question that a coach who engages in this kind of behavior should be punished. And that’s what Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who saw the tape last Nov. 26, thought. It isn’t clear when the recording was made but it seems probably at least five months earlier when allegations of Rice’s behavior first surfaced in June. Pernetti claims to have investigated Rice’s action twice, once in June and again in November. He ultimately fined Rice $50,000, ordered him to attend anger-management classes, and suspended him for three games.

ESPN and others are reporting that it is unclear what sort of investigation Pernetti undertook, whether it was internal within by school or if he hired an outside firm. Whatever Pernetti did or didn’t do, the tape has now, in the parlance of our time, gone viral, and politicians all over the state of New Jersey are checking in, most prominently Gov. Chris Christie, who condemned Rice’s actions and called for him to be fired. As of yesterday morning, they got their wish when Rutgers terminated Rice.

First, I want to say to Christie if he reads this: That’s a brave stand there, Boss Man. The gay slurs really offended you, though you yourself haven’t had the guts to stand up for gay marriage. Maybe you’re getting to the right place in your own way.

There here are a few other things, though, about the Rice scandal that are bugging me.
Rice’s record as a basketball coach: In his three seasons at Rutgers, his teams are 44-51. What seems to bother Rice’s basketball critics the most is that, while he’s been 28-15 outside the conference, he’s been an embarrassing 16-38 in the Big East. And this season the Scarlet Knights were a ridiculous 225th in the country in scoring. Reverse his record in the conference to 38-16, and his overall record is 66-31. I’m not saying that this is the reason that Rice was fired, but I am saying that it made it easier for those who condemn Rice’s behavior to get him out of there. If Rice had been a winner at Rutgers, he might have had more defenders.

You know what I’m talking about: Basketball coaches are the most fiery and abusive of their players of any sport. But why was Bobby Knight, to single out just the most famous example, given so many chances after exhibiting terrifying behavior in public many times? We all know the answer: He won. (No one had to secretly videotape him, either; he threw his fits on national TV several times a year.)

Anyway, it is possible that the tape might be one reason why Rutgers decided not to show more support for Rice, who had two years to go on his contract. If you fire a coach for losing, you have to pay him the full amount, but the player abuse may have given them an out for not paying him. That may be for Rice and his lawyer to figure out.

What disturbs me most, though, about the rush to judgment on Rice is it seems that key questions have not yet been asked, or if they have the answers have not been made public. Here’s one: While Rice has always had a reputation for being loud and rude, does he have a history of abusing his players and using anti-gay slurs? If he does, he should be fired and Pernetti, who would have known it, should be fired with him. But is what we see in the tape typical behavior for him or a one-time incident? Is it possible that Rice cracked under the pressure of losing?

Here’s another question I’d like answered: Did Rice attend those anger-management classes? It has, after all, been four months since Pernetti saw the tape and perhaps nine since it was made. Was Rice chastened by the punishment and the sting of the $50,000 fine? More to the point, have there been any incidents since then?

Another point being tossed into the mix without clarification: Two Rutgers players decided to leave the school at the end of the academic year. It was widely reported in the press that their defection was because of Rice, but the Newark Star-Ledger reported on Tuesday that it was not clear that Rice was the cause.

I haven’t seen any of these issues discussed by any sports journalist yet. If Rice had no history of abusing his players at the magnitude we see in the tape and if he did not repeat that behavior, doesn’t he deserve a second chance?

I will say this for Rice: He made as graceful an exit as it was possible to do under the circumstances. On Tuesday, at an impromptu news conference outside his home, he apologized for “the pain and the hardship that I’ve caused.

“There is no excuse. I’ve let so many people down, my players, my administration, Rutgers University, the fans. My family, who’s sitting in their house just huddled around because of the fact that their father was an embarrassment to them.

“It’s troubling, but I will at some time, maybe I’ll try to explain it. But not right now. There is no excuse for what is on those films.”

I accept the apology and would be very interested in hearing Rice’s explanation. Perhaps if they had come back in November, when Pernetti first saw the tape, everyone would be in a more forgiving mode. But I can’t help but think that because of the tenor of our times, many people have found him guilty, period, and want his head. Which they got.

Until we get some more information, I think it’s an overreaction to call the whole Rice mess “a blitzkrieg of a scandal,” as Christine Brennan did in USA Today, at the same time calling for the firing of Tim Pernetti. We don’t’ yet know that Pernetti suppressed any information, and it isn’t clear whether what’s on those tapes reflects the real Rice or was just an aberration. Until we know more, a little tolerance might be in order.