By Jordan Rosenberg. Jordan is in his final year at Rutgers School of Law – Camden. The Philadelphia native has served as the Vice President of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society (SELS) and the Rutgers Intellectual Property Legal Association. Jordan also helped organize the school’s annual Sports Law Symposium, which included speakers from the NBA, NBPA, ESPN, and local gaming officers. Prior to law school, Jordan graduated from the University of Maryland. For the past year he has been working for a Philadelphia music attorney.
After footage of Rutgers’ Basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his players surfaced on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, it seemed clear to me that Rice’s overall record of 44-51 (16-38 in Big East play), wasn’t going to be enough to save his job. Somehow it took the public outcry that followed the story’s exposure for athletic director Tim Pernetti to realize Rice had to be shown the door. Now Rutgers is facing possible legal action from the abused players and LGBT advocates.
Rice was finally terminated as the Rutgers’ head coach Wednesday, but I wonder why we needed the public outcry following the footage being released for Rice to be fired. Pernetti had been aware of the behavior since November (when a former employee gave him a copy of the video) and decided to suspend Rice three games, fine him $75,000 (according to a mass campus email sent by University President Robert Barchi), and send him to sensitivity training. Barchi knew about Rice’s misconduct and signed off on the initial punishment months ago.
Yet the public didn’t see that as sufficient. Neither did New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, who issued a statement saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the footage.
Questions are now emerging about the future of Pernetti and the embattled Rutgers program. While this falls short of the Penn State scandal and the accompanying lack of institutional control, it still appears that universities don’t understand the responsibility they hold to maintain their integrity. I don’t see how the athletic director and University President could have viewed this footage and retained Rice as a head coach. They now seem destined to face legal action and possible NCAA sanctions for harassment and physical abuse of their students.
In addition to physically abusing players, Rice is also accused of using profane language, including a gay slur. This is especially problematic in light of a previous Rutgers’ scandal wherein an 18-year old freshman killed himself in 2010 after he learned that his roommate had used a webcam to secretly spy on his romantic encounter with another man. The roommate received a 30-day jail sentence.
The suicide brought national attention to the issues of bullying, especially bullying directed at gay youth. The backlash led New Jersey lawmakers to enact the nation’s toughest laws against bullying and harassment. Now, the University that was at the center of the inspiration of those laws will be at the center of their implementation.
The 2010 law, dubbed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (reprinted below) applies to public institutions of higher education such as Rutgers. The Anti-Bullying law requires professional development of anti-bullying training, detailed procedures and timelines for reporting incidents of bullying, and a bullying report card for school districts. This incident will provide a high profile context to measure the effects of the new laws.
Additionally, leaders of Garden State Equality, a 125,000-member LGBT organization, planned a press conference near the school’s New Brunswick Student Center to make a statement regarding Rice’s firing and to voice “remaining questions for Rutgers administrators, and remaining concerns about anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.”
There’s also the matter of Eric Murdock, an ex-NBA player and former director of player development at Rutgers, who was fired by Rice and Pernetti in July. Murdock’s attorney, Raj Gadhok, has stated that he intends to sue Rutgers for wrongful termination under whistleblower retaliation laws.
“Mr. Murdock was terminated for having complained of and reported illegal conduct by Mike Rice,” Gadhok said. “As a result, his employment was terminated by Rutgers University. That is unlawful in the state of New Jersey and Eric intends to pursue legal action for his wrongful termination, which the university and its representatives have been aware of for some time now. We have no further comment at this time.”
For now, Rutgers is left scrambling to repair the damage done to the university’s image. The events that follow should shine a light on the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of the recently implemented anti-bullying laws. The incident will also provide a high profile context for LGBT advocates to bring attention to the these anti-bullying laws and perhaps push for more comprehensive laws. Finally, the athletes, who are already fighting an uphill battle for their economic rights, may soon find out more about what civil rights, if any, they retain while enrolled as NCAA student-athletes.