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Commentary / Rutgers coaching scandal


Where are all the grown-up leaders?

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Melinda Henneberger
The Washington Post
Published:
What makes me saddest about the latest college sports program to turn a blind eye to abuse is how meek those Rutgers basketball players look on the video, just taking it as their coach heaves the ball hard at their ankles, or chest, or head. They show no reaction as he, looking deranged, shoves, pummels, and showers them with gay slurs. They're used to it, obviously, and they barely flinch.
Their coach, Mike Rice, who was fired only after the video of all this went viral this week, could not control himself, but did control their scholarships. He was in charge of every aspect of their lives at college, and he would have had a say, too, in what became of them after graduation. I've written a lot about abusive college athletes, but it's the so-called adults in the room at these institutions who I often find most worthy of blame.
They set the tone; they draw the boundaries -- or don't. In theory, they are there to lead, not enable, and to protect their students rather than their stats or their status. At Rutgers, though, we see in high-def the culture these athletes are steeped in, and how little school officials are concerned about their well-being.
The collegiate sports culture is not so much about the athletes themselves as about what they can produce for their sponsors, and if they sometimes seem entitled, well, maybe that's because they've been trained and molded by immature bullies like Rice.
Tim Pernetti, who was Rutgers athletic director until he resigned Friday, kept saying that he initially chose to keep Rice on as head basketball coach even after viewing hours and hours of tape of him in action because "it was a first offense."
That's untrue on its face; this was no one-time blowup but a seemingly endless series of ugly moments, indisputable only because they were captured on video.
Pernetti also denies that the Rice underling who reported his boss' lack of self-control was fired for doing so: Instead, Pernetti insists that whistleblower Eric Murdock, who had been director of player development, is no longer at Rutgers because he was "insubordinate" for showing up at a player clinic where Rice didn't want him -- oh, I'll bet he didn't -- and that after Murdock then failed to show up for work, his contract was simply not renewed. Got it?
We're also expected to believe that school officials had no idea that one star player had already decamped as a result of Rice's abuse -- had transferred rather than be routinely referred to as a "Lithuanian faggot." That was Rice's "nickname" for Lithuania-born Gilvydas Biruta, Murdock told ESPN. Biruta told the network that "it wasn't about my game. It was about me as a person." But is anything really about these young men as people? And after being treated like that, is it any wonder that some of these young athletes behave disrespectfully, too?
Rice so frequently let anti-gay name-calling fly, according to Murdock, that he even berated a 10-year-old at a camp for younger players that the flip-flops he'd shown up in "are for faggots."
That all this was tolerated after Penn State and at Rutgers, where freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself three years ago after his roommate filmed and posted his romantic encounter with a man, makes the whole thing even more inexcusable. And though we know homophobia doesn't come from nowhere, do New Jersey taxpayers really have to fund it?
That Rutgers President Robert Barchi was told about the tape and didn't ask to see it is a pretty good indication that he didn't want to know any more.
Even now, some sports fans argue that it's Rice who's the victim -- of over-the-top political correctness.
Right up until the truth came out, it was easier for Rutgers officials to suspend Rice for a few games, send him to anger management, and to pretend, as Pernetti said, "to reeducate him on the Rutgers standard."
I'd say we've all been reeducated on that high bar now -- and have learned, too, that Rice will get a $100,000 bonus on top of his $622,500 salary for having completed the season.
At least alumni, students and faculty aren't locking arms and pretending none of this is happening; more than a dozen faculty members have called for Barchi's firing.
And once again, as in the case of the passed-out 16-year-old who was taken advantage of by high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, it's video that has made abuse impossible to deny and harder to defend.
What these young men were subjected to on the basketball court from someone who was supposed to be forming them and pulling for them is no more right than any of the cases of abuse perpetrated by athletes have been.
In fact, the suddenly contrite Rice, holding back tears and babbling about his poor family, reminds us of the low bar set by the "leaders" who sometimes train them. It all starts at the top at universities like Rutgers. And it needs to end there, too.

Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer.

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