Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of attention and outrage over the abusive actions by Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired today. This came about after a report on ESPN's Outside the Lines program released excerpts of a video of the team's practice.
Though there was criticism for his pushing and grabbing players, and for his language and slurs, commentators with an understanding of sports tended to bend over backwards with a sense of understanding about that, acknowledging that it was offensive and deserved reprimand, though not necessarily firing. But it was the throwing of basketballs that largely pushed the reaction over the edge, and everything together created an abuse of power situation, since the players (especially young college kids) had little recourse but to take it, unless they wanted to risk getting cut from the team.
While the criticism and firing appear highly justified, I think there's something missing in the reaction that deserves criticism, as well. And one thing that deserves praise from a surprising source.
Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti received a the video last November. After hiring independent investigators, he suspended the coach for three games, fined him $75,000, and required that Rice go to anger management. This punishment was approved by the University president, Robert Barchi.
Two days after the ESPN story and video were made public, Rutgers fired Mike Rice. What has me scratching my head is the question of what changed in two days that caused Rutgers to fire the coach, whereas five months ago they only suspended him for three games, plus some other penalties?
The university made an allusion to new information and "a review of previously discovered issues." Given that the video alone is what brought about so much public reaction, it would seem that the only "new information" that came along to change the perception of the video was public awareness of the it, national outcry, and a call by the head of the New Jersey state assembly (where Rutgers is located) that the coach be fired, along with a critical statement by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
All of which begs the question of judgment by the Rutgers athletic director five months ago, as well as that of the school's president who accepted that judgment.
"I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice," the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, said. "Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December, and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community."
Mr. Pernetti gets a few points for admitting he was "wrong," but then he'd have looked idiotic if he didn't, given that he just fired the guy because of the same video. And by the way, if "new information" was really important to the cause of the dismissal, then he would have less of a reason to say he had been wrong.
University President Robert Barchi additionally said, 'Tim kept me fully apprised and I supported his actions." He too gets a smattering of points for acknowledging his involvement, though that's small benefit when you're saying you supported insupportable actions.
I'm not suggesting that Pernetti should be fired. (Nor school president Barchi.) But it would seem that simply admitting you were "wrong" is a small price to pay for truly horrible judgment, keeping in mind that the abuse likely went on for years before this brief video. Even Pernetti himself acknowledges that he has to regain trust. It's hard to look at that video and think that someone didn't see it was immediately fireable, but rather was trying to bury it and hope it would go away -- especially in light of the fact the he did immediately fire the coach two days after the video did come to light. Perhaps a suspension, a fine, and being ordered to Good Management training might be in order, as well.
Which brings us to the oddest thing worthy of praise in this whole story. The reaction to all this by the coach himself, Mike Rice.
In a world where so many people double-down on their transgressions and proudly stand behind them. Or who try to explain away the inexplicable. Or who have their lawyer draft an impersonal, half-hearted apology. Or who hide behind the legendary "if" word -- "If I offended anyone...", Mike Rice's statement after being fired stands out as actually substantive and meaningful. This morning, he walked out of his house and addressed reporters. What he said, in part was --
As I stated three months ago after I watched the video how deeply regrettable those actions (were). I also stated I was going to try to work on changing. I think I've accomplished a lot of that. I can't say anything right now except I'm sorry and there will never be a time where I'm going to use any of that as an excuse or there will be any excuse.
That's an apology. It's an apology that wholeheartedly acknowledges wrong-doing, wholeheartedly says he regrets his actions, wholeheartedly notes an effort to fix the problem, and makes zero attempt to excuse.
None of this minimizes his what he did, It's just a good apology, that's all, and sometimes that's the best you can hope for in some situations. I think this is one of those situations. It's important to recognize too that there are levels of abuse (ranging all the way up to "ghastly") and having someone scream, push and throw a basketball at college students -- while 100% unacceptable and deserving of firing -- is probably low on the angst-meter that most parents would feel if they heard their child was abused. They'd probably want to punch the coach out, but not kill him.
In the end, Mike Rice did much worse than Rutgers's athletic director and president, and had something greater to apologize for. But they could learn something from him about apologizing. And maybe have one of those crack, outside investigators suggest some sort of a penalty for themselves, as well.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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