Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) take on the Rutgers men's basketball coaching scandal.
This year's Final Four week has been marred by a coach with anger issues, a misguided (at best) athletic director, and a 30-minute video that actually becomes more disturbing with each viewing. Rutgers' men's basketball coach Mike Rice was fired Wednesday after a clip emerged of Rice verbally and physically abusing his players in practice. On Friday, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti—the man who watched the video in December and recommended to Rutgers' president Robert Barchi that Rice should just be suspended for three games—followed Rice out the door.
Some people, after watching the linked video above, say that it's just "men being men," instilling discipline in the youth of America. They say that Rice is the latest victim of a feminist, PC, anti-male culture. Or as Fox host Eric Berry put it: "All the wimp-ificating and wussy-fing, basically turning men into chihuahuas." Use your position of authority to belittle, berate and assault the men you have been tasked with making better basketball players and implicitly better people? You're a real American, man.
But it's 2013. That footage is abuse. I don't want to belabor the point, so let's just say my social views dovetail with this quote from President Obama: "What makes you a man isn't the ability to conceive a child, it's having the courage to raise one." Even if you truly believe that strength and bravery and physical domination are what make a Real Man, Rice's picking on defenseless players who would never risk their scholarship by fighting back is akin to Kevin Garnett only fighting people at least six inches shorter than he is—in other words, being a phony tough guy/real-life coward.
I agree with ESPN's Ian O'Connor, who on Wednesday called for Barchi and Pernetti to be canned as well. Pernetti's resignation is a good start, but Barchi must also be given the boot. Given that a previous Rutgers' men's hoops coach forced his players to run naked wind sprints if they missed free throws in practice, it's time for wholesale change at the New Jersey public university, which takes in a whole lot of taxpayer dollars.
Are O'Connor and I going too far, Hampton? What would you have done with Rice?
Slurs are unacceptable in any context. For that alone, Mike Rice deserved to be fired. But the hysteria around this incident is becoming a bit much. Rice behaved badly. He pushed, shoved and smacked. Worse—to me, anyway—he called the kids names. Verbal abuse, again, is what's truly wrong.
But I'm also more than a little freaked out by media hysteria and rush to judgment around Rice's case. Like the New York Times' William Rhoden calling Rice "maniac" and "abomination" and saying "there are more heads that should roll" at Rutgers. That's ironic, given part of what Rice did wrong was use inflammatory words.
A little compassion would be nice. Mike Rice didn't kill or rape anyone. Rice was under huge pressure to win at a school moving to the Big 10. He wasn't winning. He had some psychological issues. In December, the school suspended him for three games, fined him $50,000, and ordered him to get anger management counseling. That is the appropriate response. Now the incident is being portrayed like some kind of massive cover-up at a College Gone Wild, and we are told that only a purge at the top can restore order.
Rice isn't a cruel, frothing madman who lives to torment 19-year old point guards. He's a human being. You cited the president on manhood Jake, but Rice and wife Kerry seem to do a perfectly fine job of raising their two children.
Agreed, the coach deserved to lose his job. He does not deserve to become a national object of scorn for the viral mob, a symbol for bully coaches everywhere, and fodder for debate about What it Means to be a Man. He deserves a chance to get help, and change his life like anyone else.
I can't defend Rice's actions as a coach, but still find it hard to stomach the national reflex for outrage, and demands that everyone fall on their sword, as Pernetti did today. What Rice did was bad. No doubt. But it wasn't off-the-charts, beyond-the-pale, rabid craziness. Right after CBS aired their segment on Rice, after all, they aired a commercial for Applebee's with Bobby Knight joking about throwing a chair. Where, one wonders, was the moral outrage when the network cashed that check?
Obviously coaches can't make players run wind-sprints naked. But coaches do have to be able to make players run normal wind-sprints, or make them do laps, or push-ups or something. Coaches must exert some form of discipline. The giant flap over Rice's case seems to have become a touchstone for our changing norms about what kind of discipline our society is going to find acceptable. That's a good conversation for us to have. But the way we are going about it still seems cruel and smug. Patrick, what's your take on the mess in New Jersey?
As a human being, Rice deserves compassion. But his bullying behavior—and that, more than anything, is what this whole thing is really about—does not. Not one iota.
I'm with Jake. Imagine this: You're a college student, and during class with your English professor, he shoves you in the back, kicks you in the shin, throws a Thesaurus at your head and calls you a fucking faggot, loudly and repeatedly, because he's unhappy with the wording of the thesis statement in your midterm Shakespeare paper. Would you want that professor suspended for three classes, forced to pay a fine equivalent to half of his year-end bonus put into anger management counseling, because, hey, the angry professor just wants to win? Or would you want him gone?
How about if you were the head of the English department? Or if the student in question was your son or daughter?
Rice is lucky he's not in jail, and luckier still that his players aren't in jail for beating him half to death. Because if he acted the way he did in a bar, a classroom, or an office, there's a good chance one or both of those scenarios would have taken place. But that's the thing: Take Rice out of a practice gym, and it's highly unlikely he would have behaved so badly. He did what he did because he's a coach, and as a coach he had the power to do it. He knew his players wouldn't fight back.
Forget sports culture. Forget macho culture. Like I said, this is a bullying story. And bullying is about abuse. Abuse and the misuse of power. Not to get all Spider-Man here, but in civilized society, great power means greater responsibility. Otherwise, we might as well start jabbing sharpened stakes into dismembered pig's heads and fighting over the conch. As a college coach, Rice's primary responsibility was the same one shared by both his institution and the people running it: educate and protect. Teach young men, and act en loco parentis. He failed completely on both counts. So did his athletic director, school president Robert Barchi, and anyone else at Rutgers who knew what was going on but decided to keep it relatively quiet, beholden to ass-covering institutional omerta. In my opinion, they all have to go. If they can't be trusted to do what's right, then they can't be trusted to do their jobs.
I hope there's a lesson in all this. Not just about seeing something and saying something, or about disciplining athletes without acting in the manner of an enraged toddler but about power, and who really has it. When I saw the video of Rice, I flinched at his actions, and also at the reactions of his players. They flinched. They cowered. They acquiesced. They stood there and took the abuse, as if they didn't know any better. I'm glad they didn't return Rice's behavior in kind—they showed more emotional maturity than their coach—but I still wish they had done something. Specifically:I wish they had walked out of the gym. I wish they had left Rice all alone, a sad little man throwing basketballs at a wall, screaming at an empty bench. Because here's the thing about bullies: They are only as powerful as you allow them to be.