By Jenelle DeVits, a former NCAA Division I basketball player at the University of New Hampshire and current 3L at Hofstra Law School. Jenelle is the Co-Founder and Director of Finance and Development of GO! Athletes, Inc.
Tyler Clementi committed suicide two and a half years ago after his Rutgers University roommate videotaped him with another man and put it on the Internet. His suicide brought national attention to a necessary conversation about cyber-bullying and the epidemic of LGBTQ youth suicide. Two months ago, Rutgers University administrators and student leaders joined with the Clementi family to announce the creation of the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. At the opening of the Center, Richard L. Edwards, Rutgers University executive vice president for academic affairs, said that “Rutgers has a history of being responsive to the needs of our LGBTQ community, as well as offering forward-thinking scholarly work to impact broader cultural change.”
After such a horrible event, one would think there would be a high level of sensitivity concerning LGBTQ bullying and an increased effort to prevent LGBTQ slurs or derogatory remarks from entering the sphere of any department within Rutgers University — including the athletic department.
Unfortunately, that was not so. Today, one is left wondering what exactly did the Rutgers athletic department learn over the last two and a half years regarding LGBTQ bullying? If we base this answer on the actions of Tim Pernetti, the Athletic Director, and Mike Rice, the former head coach of the men’s basketball team, it seems as though they did not learn anything.
In November of 2012, a video of Mr. Rice’s abusive behavior was brought to the attention of Mr. Pernetti. As a result of his investigation into the video, Mr. Pernetti announced to the public that Mr. Rice was suspended three games without pay and fined $50,000 due to a “violation of athletic department policy.” He said the suspension was a result of inappropriate behavior and language. He then went on to say that “accountability is a vital element of the Rutgers Athletics family and it is imperative our head coaches act and lead in a responsible manner. This was not an easy decision for me to make but absolutely necessary to ensure what is best for our program.”
Really? It was not an easy decision to make? I am sure a majority of the country would disagree with Mr. Pernetti. The video evidence made it abundantly clear, as the public backlash over the last few days has proven, that the only (and very easy) decision was to fire Mr. Rice. Instead, Mr. Pernetti, by failing to fire Mr. Rice in November 2012, condoned the belief that physical abuse and anti-gay slurs are tolerable in athletics. He reinforced to every single one of his student-athletes and coaches that calling someone a faggot and physically abusing them is simply remedied by a fine, a brief suspension, and an anger management class.
But, let’s return to the more important issue here: if that video did not go viral, and ESPN never released it to the public, Mr. Rice would still be coaching young adults at Rutgers University. Can you imagine being a gay, closeted, basketball player on that team or on a different team within the athletic department? These are the issues LGBTQ student-athletes face far too often.
Although this case is an extreme example of verbal and physical abuse, coaches and athletes across the country often use more “casual” homophobic and xenophobic slurs everyday. Coaches are often empowered to engage with their athletes in whatever manner they believe will inspire optimal performance. Athletic departments must be vigilant when impassioned language crosses the line and becomes bullying, harassment or hate speech because the physical, mental and emotional well-being of their student-athletes are put at risk.
So do athletic departments really get the bigger picture? While Mr. Rice’s firing is a positive response, it is only the first step. This incident needs to be a wake-up call to all high schools, colleges and universities to re-examine the culture of their athletic programs.
At GO! Athletes, we feel strongly that there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for conduct that promotes silence and prevents student-athletes from speaking out against harassment and homophobic slurs. It’s no longer permissible to employ a “boys will be boys” or “that’s what coaches do to motivate players” excuse: this is abuse, harassment, and hate-filled speech.
At GO! Athletes, the first LGBTQ organization dedicated to supporting student-athletes, we believe the public pressure to remove Mr. Rice from the coaching staff illustrates that the sports world no longer tolerates this type of language and behavior. If an institution like Rutgers can fail to acknowledge and remedy the wrongs committed by Mr. Rice back in November 2012, just two short years after the Tyler Clementi suicide, more needs to be done to hold administrators and coaches accountable. One avenue can be, and should be, the judicial system. For every wrong, there is a remedy. Future sports lawyers can play an invaluable part of ensuring student-athletes remain safe and that those responsible for coaching them remain accountable.
To learn more about GO! Athletes, please visit our website www.goathletes.org and join the movement of young athletes who are ready to end the silence and speak out against derogatory LGBTQ language.