Thought Leadership

Rutgers PR crisis stems from months of woeful inaction

Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published as an op-ed in PRDaily.

Rutgers University in New Jersey announced today that it has fired its Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Rice.

There’s no doubt that terminating Rice’s employment was the only remaining course of action for the university to follow. Still, it’s akin to applying a public relations Band Aid: a temporary fix that takes place after the damage is already done. And what damage it is.

Rice’s termination is aimed at staunching the flow of criticism now being targeted at the university following the airing of a videotape that shows Rice shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at his players on ESPN’s Emmy Award-winning investigative series “Outside the Lines” on Tuesday. The video also shows Rice directing homophobic and misogynistic slurs at his players and using other coarse language. And a Rutgers player who was born in Guinea claims that Rice mocked him and made fun of his English.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been quoted as saying, “It’s not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people.” Even LeBron James weighed in, Tweeting “If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards.”

But like an open wound that’s left to fester, the dismissal of Rice comes at least four months too late. As a result, the university is likely to face four times the negative impact to its reputation that it would have, had it been forthcoming about the coach’s actions and taken immediate action to remedy the situation.

According to media reports, Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti was given a copy of the video back in November 2012 by Eric Murdock, a former NBA and Providence College basketball player and Rice aide. After confirming the tape’s authenticity through an independent investigation, Pernetti suspended Rice for three-games, fined him $50,000 and sent him off to anger management classes.

Pernetti has been quoted as saying, “I think now that [the videotape] is out there — we knew it was going to get out there … the reaction — we knew what it was going to be.” Of course, this begs the question that, if you knew the tape was going to get out, and you knew what the reaction was likely to be, why not go ahead and do the right thing for the student athletes and the University and fire Rice in November? Instead, the University did nothing, ostensibly hoping the crisis would blow over.

And blow over it did. Like Hurricane Sandy …

Apparently, Rutgers officials learned nothing from Jerry Sandusky and Penn State. Worse, they don’t appear to have learned anything from the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death after learning that his roommate had activated a webcam and spied on Clementi and another man in Clementi’s dorm room in 2010.

Not only was Pernetti aware of the content of the videos, but he allegedly was informed of Rice’s conduct by Murdoch as far back as July 2012.  In a bit of curious timing, Murdoch’s contract was terminated shortly after he blew the whistle on Rice’s behavior, and now Murdock intends to sue Rutgers for wrongful termination. (The University maintains the reason for Murdock’s termination was because he participated in a coaching clinic without permission.)

Pernetti reasoned that he did not see the actual video of Rice’s behavior until November, which is why he took action when he did. But even when he took action, Pernetti was less than transparent regarding the severity of the situation.

Without admitting when he initially became aware of Rice’s behavior, Pernetti told reporters only that the situation “involved some inappropriate behavior and language” between Rice and his players. He offered few specifics, and as a “first offense,” Pernetti argued that the matter was resolved appropriately.

Still, Pernetti had to know that the former Robert Morris University head coach had exhibited unprofessional behavior in the past, such as when he was caught on camera angrily chasing the referees off the court after a game.

At the time of Rice’s hiring, Pernetti even admitted that Rice had a “fiery” personality. ESPN quotes Pernetti as saying “I knew exactly what I was getting, and I still know what I’ve got. Mike coaches with an edge. That personality is ideal for our program here in New Jersey. At the same time, there’s a Rutgers standard. Everybody who participates in our program at any level, I make clear what that standard is. If something falls outside that standard, he’s held accountable.”

Looking back now, Pernetti says, “I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice. Dismissal and corrective action were debated … and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong.”

It’s laudable that Pernetti now appears to be taking some responsibility for his actions. But let me ask, just in whose best interest was it to rehabilitate Rice? Not the prestige of the men’s basketball program, which was 15-16 this year and 44-51 overall during Rice’s tenure. Not the student athletes, at least three of whom transferred from the team, ostensibly due to Rice’s behavior. And certainly not the University, which is now perceived as attempting to down-play — if not cover up — Rice’s conduct.

Pernetti is not the only one responsible, though. So too is his boss, University President Robert Barchi, who apparently signed off on Rice’s punishment.

As Pernetti goes about holding “everybody who participates in our program at any level” accountable, who is holding Barchi and Pernetti accountable? Because until they are held accountable, this is a reputational wound that’s going to continue to fester.

Mickey G. Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA, is 2013 Chair and CEO of PRSA.


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