Different Symptoms, Same Ethics Illness: The Mike Rice-Rutgers Scandal And The Sandusky-Paterno-Penn State Tragedy

Missed out on your statue by thaaaat much, Mike.

Missed out on your statue by thaaaat much, Mike.

The question isn’t, as many news reports would have us believe, whether the Mike Rice affair mandates an administrative house-cleaning at Rutgers. Of course it does. The question is why, after the far uglier Penn State scandal, anyone possessing the gray matter of the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz” thinks otherwise.

In case you are really smart and pay no attention to the dire ethics swamp known as college sports: Mike Rice was a very successful Rutgers basketball coach until ESPN got a hold of a video compilation of him abusing his players on multiple occasions. Though the Rutgers athletic director had seen the damning evidence in November, he let Wise off with a fine and suspension; then the recent national exposure forced him to fire Wise. This prompted Rutger’s president, Robert Barchi, to fire the athletic director (Tim Parnetti) for not taking appropriate action once he had discovered his coach was hitting, assaulting, and taunting players. And Barchi? Even though he knew, or should have known, that Rice’s methods were unacceptable, he never looked at the video (or so he says) that was available to him six months ago, until April. The New York Times reports that many Rutgers officials as well as the university’s outside attorneys knew that Rice was abusing his players,and that he had been doing so for years.

The net lessons learned from the Penn State disaster are zero. As the Times article says, “interviews and documents reveal a culture in which the university was far more concerned with protecting itself from legal action than with protecting its students from an abusive coach.” Yes, a coach attacking student is far short of child-molesting, but that’s  irrelevant: the corrupt cultural syndrome is exactly the same.  Rutgers, top to bottom, placed winning basketball games above sportsmanship, decency, fairness, and protecting their own students. The difference between Rutgers and Penn State is Joe Paterno and moral luck.

Let us be clear: if a teacher physically assaults a student, anywhere, at any level, ever, that teacher has to be fired, and probably prosecuted. A coach is no different. This isn’t open to debate. Yet I listened, as my gorge rose, to the glib and simple-minded conservative radio host Sean Hannity jabber with ex-Notre Dame football coach and facile “inspirational speaker” Lou Holtz about how Parnetti got a raw deal. Why? Parnetti built a great program! So he lets his coaches assault his players—anyone can make a mistake! Isn’t this hindsight? Second-guessing?

“Players are spoiled today; they just aren’t ready to be criticized,” said Holtz, who speaks in platitudes and nostrums that cover a Neanderthal sensibility (so you know he’s much in demand for corporate speaking gigs.)  These men are both ethics-challenged fools, but they have plenty of company.  Rutgers’ report on Rice’s abusive treatment assembled excuses and rationalizations by the authors and others. Rutgers athletic assistants said the video clips showing Rice kicking his players and throwing objects at them “were taken out of context.” What?? In what “context” is it appropriate for a college coach to do this? None! Many of Rice’s players said he prepared them well for tough competition. The report noted that under Rice’s abusive, tortious methods, the players’ grades rose to a B average. Oh! Well, that must mean assault and battery is okay, then, because it works!  This is the ethical standard Rutgers is teaching its students.

Parents everywhere: grab your student and run.

Elsewhere, Rutgers’s internal report called Rice “passionate, energetic and demanding” and concluded that his intense tactics were only aimed at improving his team and “were in no way motivated by animus.” Ah! So beating kids is okay, as long as it’s well-intentioned! This culture is sick, sick, sick and as with Penn State, it is part of a large sick culture that pervades university sports. Here’s one official from another sick school defending Parnetti:

“I think it was unfair for them to fire Pernetti. There were probably a lot of things that went into the decision not to fire Mike Rice in December. And as gruesome as that tape was, it was also a first offense for Mike Rice. I think Pernetti is taking the heat for everything and sometimes in leadership roles you take the glory probably more than you deserve and you take the heat more than you deserve. I think right now Pernetti is taking the heat more than he deserves.”

A first offense???? The video was compiled from dozens of incidents, and Rice’s penchant for violence and abuse were already known! Yeah, there were  “a lot of things that went into the decision not to fire”  Rice, none of which add up to a single good reason not to get rid of any coach who beats up kids in his charge.

The New York Post interviewed a college official who believes its all Facebook and Twitter’s fault:

“The whole situation, top to bottom is a shame. But my opinion is that there is no manual or rule book for how to handle these types of situations. To say (Pernetti) should have handled this situation a certain way, well unless you’ve been in his shoes, it’s hard to comment on it. Obviously there was a reason why Pernetti kept Mike Rice around. What was that reason? We don’t know. But one thing I saw was that his kids, his players backed him. So In my opinion do you know what got Mike Rice and Tim Pernetti fired? Social media got them fired. People make comments and form opinions without knowing all the facts sometimes. That’s the world we live in now.”

Yes, there is a rule book, and it’s called ethics, not that this guy, or whatever college he works for, would recognize it. “Unless you’ve been in his shoes”? The translation of this fatuous and offensive rationalization is simple: “Hey, there’s a lot of pressure on this guy to win, and he’s not going to let a couple of bruised sophomores jeopardize the won-lost record and alumni support. I bet you’d let the kids get beat up too.”

I wonder what schools those two anonymous officials work for? That’s the frightening part;  they could be working at almost any big time sports school, because that’s the predominant culture there.


Sources: New York Times, Sean Hannity, New York Post

20 thoughts on “Different Symptoms, Same Ethics Illness: The Mike Rice-Rutgers Scandal And The Sandusky-Paterno-Penn State Tragedy

  1. The predominant culture doesn’t only extend to college sports. I was soured on sports early in life from dealing with an abusive coach who screamed in the face of eleven-year-olds punctuating every sentence with GodDAAAAMIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT! When that kind of garbage is allowed to go on at the lowest level, we shouldn’t be surprised when it gets even nastier at the high levels in the name of winning and “toughening the players up.”

  2. I’m afraid Steve is right. Many people are trying to minimize this because they are just hoping no videos of THEIR practices come out. . My stepson finally wised up and got out of sports after the baseball coach punished him for missing a 6 AM run in sub-freezing temps because he was in the ER for his asthma. He already had a coach who hit the players with baseballs at practice and one who slept with female students, but getting punished for being sick convinced him there was something seriously wrong with this culture.

    The students don’t report these things and usually support the coach because this is ingrained in athletics to the point that the students expect it. They have been trained to take this and anyone who complains about it is weak and should lose their scholarship.

  3. Thanks Jack. A person only needs to know two words to know all they need to know about coaching: “Bobby Knight.” For decades he’s shown himself to be little more than a mean and nasty S.O.B, but he’s revered by the sports establishment. Awful.

  4. Many people claim there is a fine line between rigorous training methods, hazing, and assault.

    I don’t think it is at all hard to discriminate between rigorous training and brutality. I think people try to blur the lines because they experienced brutalizing rigors and years later would rather brush it off as a great experience than identify it for what it was.

    I recall hearing stories from Ole Ags talking about the various and physically demanding trials their military training put them through at Texas A&M. Seemingly pointless but ultimately to steel the mind for the difficulties of war and leadership they’d face later.

    I’d also hear stories of some pretty brutal practices engaged in as well, to which my only question was “you let them do that to you?… And now your proud of the experience?”

  5. This is one of many ethics alarms that make up the NCAA. I think since its inception, there have been so many ethical issues, from calling these athletes “students”, to making big bucks off the backs of these young adults. That why you won’t see any protestations from these football and basketball players. They’ll take all kinds of abuse and won’t say a word. That’s why I stopped watching NCAA games.

  6. Oh, don’t feel too sorry for Parnetti. The state of NJ is compensating him for the inconvenience of being held accountable for his actions by giving him a severance package worth $1.2 million. This should teach him to never do THAT again.

  7. As a Penn State Grad and actual student of a Joe Paterno PE class I won’t even bother trying to defend him or the University for their atrocious behavior. People like Sandusky are always among us.. We depend on good people taking action when pedophiles or other monsters are made known.

    People are hypocrites when it comes to discipline.. They expect teenagers to work as one, to follow orders everyday and to WIN. Exactly how does a coach impart these values on teens who are thinking about something else, ANYTHING else most of the time?

    Mike Wise went too far with his players, but there are plenty of other coaches who grab their players, yell at them throw the ball at their heads, whatever… All in an attempt to get the kids’ attention on a daily basis.

    The ethics of coach is sausaging making at its finest. We don’t want to know how they got there so long as they WIN…lol

    • OK, I have to keep their attention while trying to explain quantum mechanics, logarithms, and Marcus-Hush theory. I am trying to get a bunch of business majors to understand the fundamentals of the Standard Model. Do you think this is easier than trying to get a bunch of athletes to play basketball? I only rarely raise my voice. I have never (intentionally) belittled someone, never sworn at them, never pushed them, and never hit them. Instead of pressure to win at a game, I have pressure to make them competent enough that they won’t kill many people through mistakes when they get a job. Don’t even pretend that coaches need to act this way to get their job done. They do it because they want to, because they can, and because they are part of a dysfunctional culture that has way too many defenders.

      • I’ve been on numerous teams in HS and College and there really is no comparison between the personality types in the classroom and those on the court/field/whatever… Even with the same person… Physical activity activates a lot of adrenalin and that has to be directed in a positive manner… There are many grades of coaching discipline, but they all involve some level of physical expression. Guaranteed.

    • fine line between rigorous discipline and brutality

      I’ve seen both extremes of disciple, neither of which accomplish anything.
      The objective is enough stress to encourage growth, but not so much as to break a human, within the confines of enough ‘miniaturized’ experiences of the consequences of not performing one’s duty, without brutalizing or traumatizing or dehumanizing a person.

      The military, preparing people for probably the greatest “competition” of them all, has proven methods that do not resort to brutality. They do push the envelop however and get as close to the line as possible to instill enough realism and stress without trauma or brutality or dehumanization.

      • Yes, but we aren’t talking about the military and we aren’t talking about preparing people for violent life-and-death situations. We are talking about people playing a sport. They are playing a game.

  8. This guy wise and his assistant are both bullies and punks. Their actions arent teaching or motivating or teaching discipline or any other catch phrase that their defenders can think up. I played sports growing up on Marine Corps bases across the country and never once was I treated like that by a Marine to teach me “discipline”. And I can honestly say that when I was a Marine in my early 20’s if a college coach and pulled any of these stunts on me I wouldn’t have thought twice about putting him on his ass.

  9. In the first half of this “report” you called Mike Rice Mike Wise…takes away from your credibility a little bit. Proof read…

    • You can bite me. I proof read, and make mistakes sometimes. The helpful and polite readers alert me and I fix the typos, just as I fix theirs. My analytical skills and my typing skills are completely unrelated. And this wasn’t a report–the linked story is the report. This is commentary. Go away.

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