BY USA TODAY
NEW BRUNSWICK — It’s one thing when Saturday Night Live makes fun of the affair enveloping the Rutgers University campus with a skit mocking Mike Rice, a light-hearted depiction of an out-of-control women’s basketball coach who throws toasters at her players and drives a golf cart on the court.
It’s quite another when the ESPN investigative program that started it all compares the affair to the most infamous political scandal of all time.
“One of the great questions, and it almost resonates from Watergate, is who knew what and when did they know it,” Bob Ley, ESPN’s award-winning host, said midway through the “Outside the Lines” report detailing the Rutgers controversy.
Five days after the Rutgers scandal became national news with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” unveiling of an explosive videotape showing Rice physically and verbally abusing his Scarlet Knights men’s basketball players, more layers to the story were peeled back by the network’s investigative show Sunday morning.
The focus of John Barr’s report centered on what Rutgers President Robert Barchi knew, and what he should have done to remedy the latest in a string of scandals that has rocked college athletics.
The report details how the Rutgers president admits to being informed of Rice’s behavior, and yet opted not to review the videotape provided by former Rutgers basketball aide Eric Murdock in late November – mere days after Barchi sat front and center as the university enhanced its athletic profile by joining the Big Ten Conference.
It begins with Barchi delivering his now-famous line – “This was a failure of process” – and continues with Barr saying, “but the process is made of people and after a tumultuous week at Rutgers University a head coach (Rice), an assistant coach (Jimmy Martelli), the athletics director (Tim Pernetti) and the university general counsel (John Wolf) are all out of their jobs. The reason: the now infamous Mike Rice practice tapes.”
It details Pernetti’s decision to suspend Rice for three games without pay and fine the first major coach he hired $50,000 rather than fire him after commissioning outside counsel to investigate Murdock’s assertions.
Belinda Edmondson, director of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers-Newark, called for Barchi to resign.
“We have heard and seen all that we need to see and the time has come for President Barchi to step down,” she says in the report. “Whether President Barchi heard it on tape or the athletic director communicated this to him and they let it pass with a slap on the wrist essentially … if I laid my hands on a student, if I called a student those names, they should kick me out the door before I can take another breath.”
The report balances the criticism levied on Barchi by showing a letter that lists three dozen faculty members praising Barchi’s leadership as he integrates a new medical school, and notes the votes-of-confidence Barchi received from Gov. Chris Christie and Ralph Izzo, chair of the university’s governing board.
It concludes with Barr stating: “The question remains, does the fallout end here?”
It didn’t end there on “Outside the Lines” at least, as a panel then peeled back more layers on the Rutgers scandal.
Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN’s investigative reporter, delves into the 52-page report produced by John Lacey of Connell Foley LLP and notes that Lacey’s recommendation is that he could’ve terminate Rice’s contract.
“It’s quite confusing why Tim Pernetti said the consensus he heard was Mike Rice couldn’t be fired,” Van Natta said. “Read that report and there is plenty of cause there that Mike Rice could’ve been fired for cause back in December.”
Van Natta then notes what he calls “red flags” from Rice’s coaching staff, detailing how Lacey’s report includes evidence of Rice’s assistants notifying Pernetti of Rice’s behavior “long before Eric Murdock” complained.
“There was plenty of notice and Pernetti, really, I think just ignored it,” Van Natta says. “I think the evidence is quite clear here that he tried to deal with it himself and really hoped this thing would go away.”
That’s when Van Natta offers a possible motive to Pernetti’s decision.
“As we know,” Van Natta said, “beginning in September through last fall Pernetti was very busy trying to get Rutgers into the Big Ten and he made that happen.”
Ley notes how Barchi, during Friday’s press conference, told reporters, “you can look for a cover-up (but) you will not find one,” and then asks his panel: “Is this a cover-up?”
“It certainly smells like it,” Van Natta said, “because the thing I keep going back to is that on Nov. 20, with great fanfare Dr. Barchi and Tim Pernetti announced Rutgers’ acceptance into the Big Ten, an incredibly lucrative move for the university. And at that time Tim Pernetti already knows about these questions about Mike Rice’s behavior. He sort of has kicked the can down the road, and only six days later he sees the videotape.
“Now, think about this for a second — if he decides on the spot or the next day to fire Mike Rice, this is an incredibly embarrassing bit of news for Rutgers just one week after winning entry into the Big Ten. But my question is whether that was part of the motive here for Tim Pernetti not to take action right away, to seek second opinions, to hire an outside investigator and then to only suspend Mike Rice in mid-December.”
Dr. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and former athletics administrator, then looks at the big picture of the Rutgers scandal by calling it “situational morality.”
“We act irrational in certain situations with regards to college athletics where we try to justify and moralize certain behavior,” Ridpath said. “‘You just had Rutgers at its finest hour, getting into the Big Ten, really the pinnacle of their athletic success, and then you have something potentially very embarrassing that can derail that publicly.”
“What I would tell you from my time in athletic departments,” Ridpath adds, “is nothing is more important than image. Nothing is more important than protecting the interests, and that appears to be what was happening at Rutgers at this time.”
ESPN columnist Howard Bryant also questioned the timeline of it, saying: “There’s no question that you’re not going to let anything get in the way of that Big Ten deal. Whether it’s Pernetti or Rice or Barchi, they all know what’s taken place here. … You have $25 million at stake, you’re not going to get in the way of that deal. And this easily could’ve derailed it, especially with those details.”
Ley then asks, “Who bears the ultimate responsibility for this tiny, little relatively aspect – as horrible as the tapes are – metastasizing into something that has become this national spectacle?”
“I think it leads to the larger cultural issues,” Ridpath says. “When are we going to finally sit down and say do we have a model here that works? And frankly we don’t. The model of college athletics, how it’s structured now at least at the Division I level is kind of like trying to stick a square peg into a round hole. It’s time we really address the model and accept that the current model does not work. … There are ways to fix this but we need to sit down and have that serious conversation.”
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