To suggest parallels between the misconduct of former Rutgers University men’s basketball Coach Mike Rice and that of convicted felon Jerry Sandusky presents a tricky proposition.
Both perpetrated deplorable behavior, though in the case of Penn State’s former assistant coach, the misconduct was criminal and destructive to innocent lives.
Still, the imagery of how Penn State handled the Sandusky scandal is so fresh and powerful that it provides an adequate framework from which to draw parallels to Rutgers.
Rutgers on Wednesday fired Rice, amid national outrage over a viral video showing him abusing players and berating them with homophobic slurs and profanity during practices.
Rutgers in December–prior to the video going public–had suspended Rice for three games and fined him $50,000.
For now, it appears that the New Jersey university, like Penn State, knew about the misconduct but tried to contain the damage.
Much like Penn State and the clergy sex abuse case out of the Catholic Church, this type of institutional pattern of behavior is predictable, said Barmak Nassirian, a Washington, D.C.-based higher education analyst.
“They tend not to be as harsh on people of authority, particularly if they are successful. Therefore, the level of tolerance tends to be calibrated to the behavior,” he said. “They are placed on a totem pole.”
In the case of Sandusky, the months-long exhaustive Freeh Report concluded that the university’s top administrators had for years known about the coach’s molestation of children, but chose to protect the football program, the once-popular coach and the university’s reputation.
Sandusky last year was found guilty and sentence to life in prison for sexually abusing 10 boys over decades. The university’s top administrators will later this year stand trial on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Accounts so far out of the Rutgers situation indicate the university knew about the behavior months ago, perhaps even longer. That’s troubling on many fronts.
“The coach’s firing is really not a reaction to the video but to the public outrage that has overtaken the university’s prior judgment,” Nassirian said.
In the case of Penn State, the misconduct was secretive and the would-be whistleblower, graduate assistant Mike McQueary, was rushed along by top administrators and the late former coach Joe Paterno.
In the case of Rutgers, the misconduct was, for all intended purposes, in public view. Rutgers now must contend with the allegation that it fired an employee whistleblower.
Former NBA player and team staffer Eric Murdock, who on Tuesday provided ESPN with his video compilation of Rice’s misconduct, claims he was fired by the university last year for exposing Rice.
“If true it would be very troubling and would confirm the cynical suspicion many people tend to have about institutional behavior,” Nassirian said. “That institutions circle the wagons around the mighty and powerful and it is only when they get caught that they hurry into action and express outrage and regrets and issue assurances that they would never tolerate that kind of behavior.”
But was Rice’s misconduct an isolated incident at Rutgers or was he moved from one institution to another, top administrators along the way cognizant of his behavior?
“If so that would extend the question to why are higher education and athletics communities so tolerant of this kind of abuse,” said Ellen Staurowsky, professor of sports management at Drexel University and sports author.
Among the schools in his bio, Rice coached at the University of Pittsburgh, St. Joseph’s University and Marquette University.
Staurowsky seldom ceases to be amazed at the reaction from students at one of her go-to lessons: That of the firing of Holy Family’s former men’s basketball coach John O’Connor, who was let go of the Philadelphia University in 2011 after he assaulted a student athlete during practice.
“It was so interesting to me because so many of those students had been athletes at some point in their lives, many of them thought people were making too big a deal–that they get pushed around like that all the time,” Staurowsky said. “I’m a former coach and that was a very unsettling conversation to have. That athletes seem to be so accustomed to being mistreated.”
O’Connor coaches at Lafayette College in Easton.
Moreover, the code of silence that coated the Penn State’s Sandusky with so-called Teflon for years seems to have paved the way for Rice to berate his athletes for some time as well.
Staurowsky dubs it, “What happens in the team stays on the team.”
“When you think of all the support people who would’ve been in the vicinity when this happened who said nothing or may have attempted to say something but weren’t supported,” she said.
“There really is something that goes on with some athletic teams where athletes really are not able to exert their own voice without feeling they are going to be punished in some way for doing so.”
In the Penn State narrative, the university’s board of trustees ultimately handed down the weight of their governance on administrators for their handling of the Sandusky case. The board chastised everyone from Paterno, whom they fired, to the top administrators for not only mishandling the situation, but failing to bring it to their attention in a timely manner. In fact, the Freeh Report slammed the Penn State Board of Trustees for failing to provide adequate oversight.
It remains to be seen whether those lessons were learned at Rutgers.
“They are now jumping on it as it should now that it’s become a public issue but I ask myself if the board had been properly informed of this back in the fall and had had a chance to review the case and give advice, the outcome would have undoubtedly been better which makes it similar to the far more egregious and tragic case of Penn State,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Had former Penn State president Graham Spanier called an executive session with the board and addressed the allegations on Sandusky, history–and the lives of 10 men–would have been different.
“What would’ve happened at Rutgers if the board had had the opportunity to hear about this in the fall,” Poliakoff said. “My guess is that the decisive action would have happened earlier and spared Rutgers much of the embarrassment. The moral of the story is that governing boards need to be involved early and fully in these cases.”