By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Watching the unfolding meltdown at Rutgers University this week you had to be struck by the full array of human weakness on display. Prompted in large measure by a disgruntled former employee (all truth seems to come out that way), the school was rocked when a compilation video surfaced showing three years of verbal, physical and mental abuse heaped on student athletes whose crime was winning a basketball scholarship and having the misfortune to play for Head Coach Mike Rice and Assistant Coach Jimmy “Baby Rice” Martelli.
Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of an educational video that describes just how lucky those receiving a “free” college education really are:
In case you think this was merely aberrational conduct by these two “educators,” Ian Diatlo, a student manager for Rutgers during the 2011-12 season will disabuse you of that notion: “That was a very typical practice — this occurred like every practice.”
I couldn’t help thinking about Dan Jenkins’ 1981 novel, Baja Oklahoma, and his classic 10 stages of drunkenness. The story, set in 1950s Fort Worth, Texas, details the life and loves of hard-bitten, 40ish barmaid, Juanita Hutchins, whose keeps the dream of writing country music alive even as she endures a hot-to-trot, drug addled daughter, a host of sloshed suitors, and a lost love who provides the hope of salvation. Surveying her situation, Juanita develops her 10 stages of drunkenness:
- Witty and charming (part 1): This is after one or two drinks. The tongue is loosened and can yet remain in step with the brain. In the witty and charming stage one is likely to use foreign idioms and phrases such as au contraire in place of “No way, Jose” or “Bull -sheyet”
- Rich and famous: By the third drink, you begin mentioning that the little 380SL you’ve had your eye on down at the Mercedes place.
- Benevolent: You’ll buy her a Mercedes, too. It’s only money.
- Just one more and We’ll eat: a stall tactic
- To hell with Dinner Grizzard: Just one more and then we’ll eat!
- Patriotic: The war stories Begin
- Warm up the Enola Gay: “We would have won in ‘Nam, but…”
- Invisible: So this is what the inside of of ladies room looks like
- Witty and charming (part 2): You know, you don’t sweat much for a fat girl.
- Bulletproof: Bull-sheyet, gimme them keys, I can drive.
The lead-in to the firing/forced resignations of both coaches as well as up and coming Athletic Director Tim Pernetti seemed to exhibit all the charm of a Texas bar brawl. Seems cheap liquor and power in the world of big time college athletics have a lot in common.
First, the witty and charming Pernetti, who once ran college football broadcasts for ABC, views the video filled with basketballs thrown at players’ heads and homophobic taunts and then decides that walking down the hall with a pink slip in hand is too gauche for the ivy-covered walls of the Piscataway campus and instead opts to send it up the Human Resources/Lawyer ladder where it was destined to languish ia a wash of regulations, policy handbooks, and the considered opinions of professionals whose contact with students is limited to bumping into them as they run intra-office memos to and fro. The good lawyers and HR folks at Rutgers do what every organization faced with a crisis that’s not really treated as a crisis does: They hire an outside law firm to tell them not so much what is right, but what is legal. What comes back is hotly disputed with outside counsel claiming that they ok’ed the firing, but Rutgers internal counsel claiming the firing couldn’t be justified. By the way, Rutgers chief counsel “resigned” the other day, too.
Then comes the “Rich and Famous” part with AD Pernetti, a millionaire many times over and a superstar in the making for cajoling the Big Ten Conference to admit Rutgers to their sports empire and all the gold that entails, suspends Rice for three whole games and hits him with a $50,000 fine. A drop in the bucket really when compared to Rice’s $850,000 salary and the knowledge that Rice will collect a $100,00.00 bonus once the season is over. And, of course, the reason was not basketball booty but benevolence, you see:
“I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of coach Rice,” Pernetti said in a statement. “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.
Ah, human frailty caused by too much love of your fellow-man. It is the Achilles Heel of us all!
Then the stalling begins. Rice is forced out but an insider from the Rutgers Board of Visitors tells ESPN that Pernetti’s job is safe because, after all, he got us into the honey pot that Big Ten tv revenues truly is. In reality, Pernetti knows the day after Rice’s firing that he is the next to go according to Tara Sullivan of NJ.com. The only question is whether to call it a resignation or a firing. All the while, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is sending unmistakable shots over the Rutgers bow like this doozy:
“It’s not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people and clearly there are questions about this behavior that need to be answered by the leaders at Rutgers University.”
The flag waving wasn’t done yet either. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic) called Rice’s conduct “unacceptable not only at our state university, but in all circumstances. It is offensive and unbecoming of our state.”
Then Pernetti becomes invisible as does Rutgers President Robert Barchi, saying more info will follow on Friday as the scandal reaches critical mass among journalists, politicians, and alums. On Friday, Pernetti is officially out and Barchi holds to his job by a thread. He does get a word of support from Christie and members of the Board but didn’t Pernetti get the same backing? Pernetti, ever the composed professional, tenders a resignation letter for the ages. Mildly blaming lawyers and HR professionals and the system for the mess (amazing how little they sweat,too) , he professes his undying love for the university he’s sullied and rides off into the sunset for fund-raising and empire building opportunities elsewhere — with a $1.2 million NJ taxpayer-funded severance package, of course.
To close the loop, Rutgers President Barchi goes before a rabid press corps on Friday with the enlightening explanation that this was not a failure of human judgment but one of process. “There is no question that big-time athletics have some risks,” said Barchi, who has been on the job less than a year. “I didn’t expect to see them so quickly. … I regret that I did not ask to see the video when Tim first told me of its existence,because I am certain that this situation would have had a very different outcome had I done so.”
He might well have added, “ Bull-sheyet, gimme them keys, I can drive.”
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger