Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rutgers University's Failure of Leadership

When Rutgers University’s athletic director and college president learned their basketball coach, Mike Rice, was physically and verbally abusive of his players, they did little to correct the situation. In video made available to ESPN, it is clear that Rice’s behavior was over the line, including his use of homophobic terms meant to degrade the men under his tutelage. Yes, there was a three game suspension and a $50,000 fine. No reason for that “punishment” was given at the time, which I see as an attempt to cover up the scandalous behavior and keep it from the media, the Rutgers community and the general public.

Ian O’Connor, one of the best sports writers in the country (if not THE best), succinctly wrote about the real issue in this case, a failure of leadership by Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti and university President Robert Barchi.

First, the whistleblower who brought this abuse, which had been going on for two years, to his superiors’ attention was dismissed from the university. Second, no effort was apparently made by the Rutgers administration to get Rice to change his behavior. Third, no change would have been made had this video not come to light. 

One would think that following the suicide by gay Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi two-and-a-half years ago, students, faculty and staff there would be more aware of the damage caused by bullying and anti-gay slurs. By allowing Rice to continue a pattern of abuse known by the athletic director and, in all likelihood, senior administrators, Rutgers’ top officials showed a moral and ethical cowardice that is unbefitting people in their positions. It also sets a poor example for young adults who look to their faculty and administration as role models who would do the right thing in such a situation.

This behavior and the lack of a proper response from the university's "leadership," is why an organization like Athlete Ally, founded by my friend Hudson Taylor, is needed. Hudson and a variety of professional and collegiate sports stars visit college campuses to speak to student-athletes and others about the cruelty of homophobia and misogyny and the dangers they present to those who are verbally (and in some cases physically) abused. 

Fortunately, news coverage hours after Rutgers fired Rice, showed that the overwhelming number of students interviewed realized that what Rice did was wrong and the mishandling of this case by the university was as bad if not worse. The university's official statement was disingenuous. If Rice's actions were deemed wrong on April 3, they were just as wrong last November or anytime over the two years when this behavior allegedly took place.

In large academic institutions with Division I sports programs, there is often tension between academics and athletics. Too often, in a struggle between the two, athletics wins.

One last thing…In an ironic twist, I was invited to attend a conference on “ethical leadership” at, of all places, Rutgers University. I declined and recommended the president and athletic director take my place. I expressed my displeasure with the university’s response to the coach’s homophobic bullying and said I would not entertain any funding requests for any program at Rutgers under its current leadership. I did not hear back from them.