Harry Truman popularized the phrase by putting it on a walnut sign on his White House desk in 1945, turning a homespun colloquialism into a declarative about taking responsibility:
The Buck Stops Here.
Almost 70 years later, the phrase resonates in college athletics, but as less a statement than a question now. Where does the buck stop? Who is ultimately responsible?
The topic is hottest now in New Brunswick, N.J., home of Rutgers University and its shamed former men’s basketball coach, but there will be another school to come along, another scandal. Meantime, the question echoes from Happy Valley and Penn State to NCAA headquarters all the way down to Coral Gables and the Miami Hurricanes.
Who is ultimately responsible?
The lesson of Penn State is that the buck stops higher than it used to. Much.
What used to be a football or basketball problem became an athletic department problem, which in turn now becomes a school administration problem.
The burden of responsibility used to trickle down. Now it rises higher than it ever has.
The Penn State sex-abuse scandal put longtime football assistant Jerry Sandusky in prison and cost iconic coach Joe Paterno his job because he was seen as not doing enough to stop Sandusky’s years of abuse. But it wasn’t enough. The university president, vice president and athletic director all lost their jobs because Sandusky happened on their watch.
What is happening at Rutgers this week does not compare with the Sandusky scandal. Make that clear.
Basketball coach Mike Rice was fired Wednesday for physically and verbally abusing his players, but his actions were not criminal, or at least not felonious. Rice proved himself only to be a bully, a homophobe and a hellish example of a role model and authority figure.
(Come to think of it, only when contrasted with Sandusky does Rice begin to appear in a softer light.)
Outrage is felt
What interests here is not what Rice did — it was inexcusable — but the reaction to it and fallout from it.
There has been outrage from the office of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to the reigning NBA champions. LeBron James sent an angry tweet. Teammate Ray Allen called Rice “despicable,” and said, “It made me want to fight him.”
A video of Rice’s abuse was shown to Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti in November, but it was kept quiet. The coach was suspended for three games and sent to anger-management classes but kept his job.
Then ESPN’s Outside The Lines obtained and aired the video Tuesday.
Pernetti initially defended the actions he had taken in not firing Rice.
But the video was going viral, the story exploding, metastasizing on social media. Many were howling not only for the coach’s job now, but for Pernetti’s, too.
So Pernetti relented and fired Rice. It was pragmatic. Pernetti meant to save his own job.
But the buck that once stopped low in a matter like this — that chain of responsibility keeps rising now, remember?
So Pernetti, admitting he was wrong to have not fired Rice earlier, sees his own job in jeopardy, and Rutgers president Robert Barchi also is drawn under fire into the hot mess.
Pernetti said Barchi was aware in November of the video and signed off then on Pernetti’s course of discipline. Barchi said he just became aware this week. One man is lying. Both could lose their jobs.
The buck stops, but only eventually.
The highest level
That is why NCAA president Mark Emmert, the Ultimate Hypocrite, should see his job in trouble, too. His organization is the police, judge and jury of college sports — of others’ misdeeds. Yet the NCAA’s own corrupted handling of the ongoing Miami/Nevin Shapiro case has been tainted by admitted wrongdoing that has led to independent investigations and internal firings.
Emmert’s own investigative staff broke rules, but there he sits imperially, impervious, as if the rules of responsibility do not apply to him as they applied to the Penn State president, or the folks at Rutgers who knew they had a volatile, ball-throwing, shoving, gay-slur-shouting bully for a basketball coach.
Which brings us back around to Miami, and to that sign on Harry Truman’s desk.
UM president Donna Shalala is a respected and powerful woman. She has served in a presidential cabinet. She is deeply connected. And she has seemed to do everything right ever since the Shapiro scandal broke. She has pledged cooperation with the NCAA. She has self-imposed sanctions against her school to help mitigate future penalties. And she has vigorously decried the NCAA’s abuse of power and argued against further punishment.
Shalala has been out front on this in every way, proactive, even combative when called for.
She has taken the offensive in a way that has been the best, smartest defense against her own responsibility in all of this. I don’t mean this has been her plan, merely the effective result. It is harder to point fingers at a woman standing up to shake a righteous fist on your behalf.
So Penn State’s president lost his job, and the NCAA president should, and the Rutgers president might, but the pressure on Shalala has been negligible, even though Shapiro’s actions across eight or nine years happened, ultimately, on her watch.
I am not saying this scandal should cost Shalala her job. I do not believe it will, or should.
But in today’s climate, the idea it could is not preposterous.
If UM is hit hard with additional penalties, at some point the university would have to come to grips with the notion it wasn’t the bumbling NCAA or even the nefarious Shapiro most to blame for what happened as much as it was the school’s own protracted lack of oversight.
In a situation like that the buck tends to rise, and on whose desk it stops, nobody knows.