The firing Wednesday of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, for shoving players around, firing basketballs at them and screaming that they were “faggots” and “fairies,” reflects universal condemnation.
Once ESPN aired a video showing Rice’s abusive style during practice, players, sportswriters and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rose up. As NBA star LeBron James tweeted, “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.”
Rice always acted like a jerk on the sidelines — yelling at his players and at the refs and generally behaving like a jackass. But while that behavior had long been tolerated if not celebrated, his off-court actions clearly crossed the line of acceptability.
Rice himself told reporters gathered outside his home, “I will at some time, maybe I’ll try to explain it, but right now, there’s no explanation for what’s on those films. Because there is no excuse for it. I was wrong. I want to tell everybody who’s believed in me that I’m deeply sorry.”
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti is facing calls for his own firing because he saw video of Rice abusing players and shouting slurs before it went public and yet suspended the men’s coach for only three games. The Newark Star-Ledger reported as far back as December that “an internal investigation” found Rice had used slurs and thrown the ball at players’ heads.
In other words, the authorities knew, and they didn’t stop it, not until denunciations came raining down from outside the school’s gates. Is this how it has to be — a clearly abusive coach only gets fired when his transgressions get aired on television?
If you look at the history of coaches accused of this kind of abuse — and especially what it took for Indiana University to fire the famously temper-ridden, player-choking Bobby Knight — it seems that coaches can get away with way too much for way too long.
“I was like in total shock that this guy wasn’t fired — immediately, on the spot,” said Eric Murdock, the former NBA player Rice hired as director of player development in 2010 who says he went to the athletic director about Rice’s conduct last summer. (And who Rutgers let go last June, for reasons Murdock and the school dispute — Pernetti says “insubordination.” Murdock is planning to sue the school for wrongful termination.)
One major difference between Knight and Rice is their win-loss records — Rice didn’t have a winning season in his three years at Rutgers, which must have made him easier to cut loose. But I’d like to think it also matters that the Knight saga played out more than a decade ago. Today, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift in how we think about bullying and about cruel aggression as a motivator. It’s becoming increasingly clear that schools and teams are not supposed to stand for abusive bullying, even from coaches who say it’s all about intensity, passion, and competition. We’re less swayed by the old assumption that no one should mess with a tough coach, that players have to take whatever comes their way, and if they can’t, they just can’t hack it.