Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Step Aside: Nothing To See Here

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Bob Ford wrote

Head coach Mike Rice, through the magic of digital recording, was discovered to be an educator whose methods of imparting knowledge include charging his students to deliver two-handed shoves from behind that snap their necks backward. He is also fond of throwing basketballs at their feet, genitals, and heads, and particularly enjoys using homosexual slurs and referring to them as various parts of the female anatomy. Yeah, he's a real prize.

As is usually the case in this sort of situation, Rice didn't lose his job because of his actions, but because they became public. Athletic director Tim Pernetti, who resigned prior to his own termination, knew the coach he hired had a temper issue and knew, as advised for some time by Eric Murdock, former director of player development, that players were being badly mistreated.

Despite a few press conferences and public confessionals, including a hilarious one held by university president Robert Barchi, it is still difficult to tell what went wrong at Rutgers with what should have been an obvious decision. Pernetti said he wanted to fire Rice as soon as he saw the video of practices, which is convenient to say now. He said he was stopped by a school lawyer - who was also canned - and the whole thing devolved into ass-covering by committee.

Eventually, Rutgers brought in outside lawyers to look at the thing, an independent investigator, human resources employees of the university, and a psychologist. There might have been a tarot-card reader, too; I'm not sure.

Rutgers needed all those people and all that deep thought to decide if the basketball coach should be throwing balls at the heads of his players and questioning their manhood.

"It was a failure of process," said Barchi, who admitted only to being superficially briefed about the issue. It was as if he had been told that, every six months or so, Rice would say something like, "Damn it all, fellas. We have to box out." One does not become a university president without cultivating a close relationship with deniability.

Barchi was wrong, of course. This wasn't a failure of process. This was a function of process. There shouldn't have been a process at all. There should have been an athletic director sending out a release to announce the coach's dismissal about 30 minutes after he saw the practice video. That's the process.

Instead, because lawyers keep their jobs (although not in this case) by managing risk, particularly the risk of litigation liability, it is easy to believe the school was advised that getting rid of Rice could be more dangerous than keeping him. According to Pernetti, the opinion was that "university policy would not justify dismissal" because of the coach's actions.

It leaves one to wonder what would justify dismissal according to university policy. Would Rice have needed to make them strip off their clothing, piece by piece, as they missed free throws in practice and then run naked wind sprints? That helped get Kevin Bannon fired as Rutgers head coach in 2001, at the end of another embarrassing and depressing week.

Maybe that would have done it, but merely physically and verbally abusing students apparently isn't enough to get you fired at Rutgers. Good to know.

As part of a settlement, Athletic Director Pernetti will receive more than $1.25 million (plus other benefits) for resigning as part of a settlement, which should help alleviate the pain of separation.    Rutgers' interim senior vice president and general counsel John B. Wolf also has resigned. Nevertheless, ESPN's Brett McMurphy reported, President Barchi is highly unlikely to go anywhere.

Of course not.  The president has someone powerful on his side.    Governor Chris Christie, who reiterated that Pernetti's decision was "necessary and appropriate," nonetheless backed the university's president, maintaining

I do continue to have faith in him.  Nothing that has come to light in the last number of days changes that...

The people who are responsible for this conduct have been dealt with I think we need to move on.

But it got worse when we learned on April 20

Rutgers University president Robert Barchi inadvertently misspoke Thursday afternoon when he told members of the Assembly Budget Committee that he would not sign off on a severance payment for ousted basketball coach Mike Rice, a university official said Friday.

Several hours later, the university issued a statement saying it would pay Rice $475,000 as part of a separation agreement. University officials now say Barchi meant that he would never agree to higher settlement figures that reportedly had been under discussion with Rice.
Barchi was questioned Thursday by Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D., Mercer), who sought confirmation that there would be no severance payment to Rice following his discharge.
"That is my position as a nonlawyer, but that is also why I have a new general counsel," Barchi testified. "Personally, having reviewed what I reviewed, I am going to be pretty hard to budge off of that."
The turnabout caused puzzlement among some members of the Legislature, who wondered whether Barchi had full command of the issues surrounding Rice's termination.

Asked about the continuing impressive popularity of the governor, Christie's chief political strategist recently stated "I think the most important thing is his authenticity. He says what he thinks, brutally and honestly, and people respond to that. "  This is the chief executive who defends the state university's president because "you cannot micromanage every issue."   Yet, three individuals now have lost their job while the brazenly dishonest guy at the top keeps his because he knew enough not to look at a tape of extraordinary behavior he'd have to address.

It's a little like a governor who expects to keep his job after cutting women's health care, propping up a casino which later goes bankrupt, eviscerates environmental protection, giving a politically well-connected firm the  contract to clean up after Hurricane Sandy, and blocks transit funding in the region most dependent in the nation upon public transportation.  And all that while currently presiding over a state with the 7th highest unemployment rate in the country and highest in the region.  Like the university president he defends, Chris Christie is not one to allow circumstances to get in the way of professional ambition.

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