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Gorman: Mike Rice falls to a college sports cover-up. When will colleges learn their lesson?
Mike Rice is now the former head coach of Rutgers’ men’s basketball team. He was fired Wednesday morning after a tape aired on ESPN that showed him pelting balls at players, shoving and kicking them and grabbing them by their jerseys.
Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti saw the tape in November and told WFAN radio that he showed it to Robert Barchi, the school’s president. Pernetti suspended Rice for three games and fined him $50,000. At the time, no reason was given for the disciplinary action. Barchi said in a statement Wednesday that Pernetti told him last year about the video, but he said he did not watch the video until Tuesday, the day it was made public.
Now we are supposed to believe Wednesday's removal came after “new information” surfaced, and not due to the school’s embarrassment after the abusive video was made public. This "new information" Pernetti and Barchi are hiding behind remains unknown, fueling the criticism that they were covering up Rice's bad behavior.
The tape was compiled by former NBA player Eric Murdock, who was hired in 2010 by Rice as the director of player development. Rice said he put it together after he was fired. Rutgers says it chose not to renew his contract.
The uproar caused by the video — including outcries from public figures like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Lebron James — led to the demand for Rice’s removal. But some, like Ian O’Connor of ESPN New York and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo of Sirius XM, are calling for the removal of Pernetti as well.
Scandals like this usually end with firing all those involved. But the habits of many coaches and athletic directors and university officials have not changed. Clearly, the lesson is not sticking.
Coaches who have winning seasons often get away with many kinds of illegal or just inexcusable behavior. Penn State's Joe Paterno protected Jerry Sandusky. USC’s Tim Floyd resigned after being accused of bribing a recruit. Even Bobby Knight, the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympics coach, was accused of grabbing one player by the arm and choking another at Indiana University. The list goes on.
Scandals in college athletics often have two things in common: the attempts to keep things quiet by the universities involved and the harsh criticism from the public and the media. The former have become part of the culture of college athletics. These administrations know they have a lot to lose and they’re willing to dole out petite punishments to keep the issue under the radar because letting the public find out seems like a worse option. Bad press, which affects everything from alumni donations to application numbers, can leave an athletic program in shadow for years.
Penn State post-Sandusky is the worst case example of cover-ups gone wrong. Penn State football is working through a four-year bowl ban, four years of scholarship reductions and a $60-million fine, with even more sanctions imposed by the Big Ten conference.
Rice’s removal will set Rutgers’ basketball back at least three seasons while a new staff and team settle in, according to commentators.
Bad press harms athletic departments and university reputations. But hidden scandals can hurt players for the rest of their lives. It’s time to change the game.
[Correction: This blog has been updated to note that although Pernetti said the university president saw the video last fall, Barchi says he saw it only this week.]