ESPN’s Outside The Lines aired the Mike Rice video on Tuesday, and it’s difficult to watch. The Rutgers basketball coach is shown shoving, kicking and hurling balls at players. Various profanities are bleeped out, but one-time Rutgers assistant Eric Murdock paints a picture vivid enough to get around the censors.
Rice was suspended three games when Rutgers administrators were informed of his conduct. A more severe punishment may have been in order had athletic director Tim Pernetti predicted public scrutiny once this became national news. Everyone from media, to your average Twitterer and even the best player in basketball had an opinion.
If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards! C’mon
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 2, 2013
Pernetti appeared on FOX Sports Radio in October and discussed bringing national attention to the Rutgers athletic department. He’s certainly getting it now, but of the negative variety.
Sports Illustrated national college football columnist Andy Staples brought up an interesting point: coaches recruiting against Rutgers football coach Kyle Flood have ammunition via Pernetti’s leinient action against player abuse.
It’s not necessarily fair to Flood, a longtime assistant to Greg Schiano with a reportedly strong rapport among his Rutgers players. But then, what is fair on the recruiting trail?
Coaches’ treatment of players goes well beyond the hardwood and football field of Piscataway, N.J. Two notable instances of high profile players alleging mistreatment surfaced this past college football season. Marquess Wilson accused Washington State Cougars head coach Mike Leach and his staff of abuse. Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver A.J. Barker left the team late in the 2012 campaign, before posting a scathing letter addressed to Jerry Kill on his Tumblr account.
We may never know the validity of either players’ charges. Later actions called some of their complaints in to questions: Wilson back-tracked and Leach was cleared* and Barker was arrested not long after his messy break-up from the Gopher football team. Their accusations might be easily dismissed as the backlash of the disgruntled exception.
Perhaps this was the underlining truth of each of the above cases. Again, we may not know. Likewise, we may never know how many more Mike Rices there are leading basketball or football programs around the nation.
Leach was fired from Texas Tech in 2009 amid charges of player mistreatment, however. He was one of three BCS conference coaches dismissed following that season: the USF Bulls parted ways with Jim Leavitt after Leavitt alleged slapped a player; the Kansas Jayhawks terminated Mark Mangino’s contract for verbal assaults on players.
The Leach-Texas Tech situation may have done more harm in preventing future player abuse than good. Craig James used the pulpit he had via ESPN to level charges against Leach.
Perhaps James’ claims of Leach mishandling the former’s son, Adam, would be treated differently had James not used the spotlight to prosthelytize on politics and launch his ill-fated senatorial campaign.
Again, the accuser comes off as having an ulterior motive. The more such cases like these there are, the more difficult it becomes for true whistleblowers to come forward.
Notice it was a coach, not a player, coming forward with allegations against Rice. It’s difficult for players to do so.
Think of your own life. Maybe you held a job with a manager whose methods were questionable — unethical, even. Coming forward is much easier said than done when you need the paycheck. And simply finding another job isn’t any easier, particularly with the importance of a letter of recommendation.
It’s similar for an athlete. You’re in your late teens/early 20s. Your education is paid, under the condition you fulfill your obligations to the athletic program. Transferring is a possibility, but you’re committed to your university. Further, how much more difficult does transferring become when you’re seen as a malcontent? Or, to put it in more basic but more popular terms, a snitch?
It was played up to an extreme, but such situations bear resemblance to Kevin Spacey’s threats against Jason Bateman in the 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses: “Settle in, because you’re here for the long haul.”
Head coaches become public representatives of their universities. Tim Pernetti is discovering this fact’s significance the hard way. Thus, the university athletic department harbors responsibility to ensure a coach has his players’ best interest in mind.
Because players are rarely going to address concerns publicly, and since Eric Murdocks are rare, one possibility is closer internal monitoring of practices.
*UPDATED on APRIL 3: Reader input suggested the addition of Leach’s exoneration by the Pac-12 Conference, which only further extrapolates on the point that bad grievances impact other cases, like that at Rutgers.