Ethical failure at Rutgers: Abusive coach, bad management, questionable lawyering

Last week, Rutgers University men’s head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after videotape of his ongoing verbal and physical abuse toward his players went viral. The video is a compilation of Rice at practice sessions, repeatedly yelling at his players (including loud profanities and homophobic slurs), aggressively grabbing and pushing them, and firing basketballs at them.

Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti reportedly knew of the behaviors as early as last summer.  He saw the videotape late last fall, and — after obtaining legal advice and consulting with Rutgers president Robert Barchi — gave Rice a slap on the wrist by suspending him for three games and imposing a fine.

However, the story resurfaced last week when the videotape went public. Suddenly, Rutgers found itself under a barrage of media attention, leading to a quick domino effect: At a Friday press conference, President Barchi said that he saw the video for the first time when the story was breaking and ordered Pernetti to fire Rice. Following Rice’s termination, Pernetti resigned amidst cries for his departure. Rutgers general counsel John Wolf also was shown the door. (Barchi, the guy at the top, still retains his job as of this writing.)

Ethical systems failure

The details continue to surface, so it’s likely that more information will flesh out the story of how this abusive coach managed to avoid termination until Rutgers had no other choice. But even with what we know, it’s clear that Rutgers mishandled the situation at every level.

Bullying coach

After watching the video several times and reading a lot of the news coverage, it’s obvious to me that Mike Rice is much more than your stereotypical over-the-top coach. He’s got a hair-trigger temper, he’s verbally abusive, and he sees nothing wrong with physically assaulting his players. (For portions of the videotape, Google “Mike Rice Rutgers video” and get some choices.)

Guys like this should not be coaching.

John Baldoni, writing for Forbes, quickly put Rice’s behavior in the context of workplace bullying — even citing studies by the Workplace Bullying Institute — and urged employers to watch the Rice video:

Every senior executive needs to watch the video of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his players during practice.

…Fear of the boss, coupled with the belief that management will not listen, cows employees into silence and so it is up to executives who want to do the right thing to initiate anti-bullying policies that ensure the protection of employees and the banishment of bullying.

Bad management

Departed athletic director Pernetti, the point person in the university’s handling of the situation, is a Rutgers graduate and a true believer in his alma mater‘s sports program. It’s likely that he was too invested in that devotion to render a sensible decision when Rice’s behavior and the videotape were brought to his attention.

However, there’s plenty of responsibility to go around, as Tim Eder reports for the New York Times:

But Mr. Pernetti is hardly the only person who watched the edited video and still approved of keeping Mr. Rice on staff until last week. The athletic department’s human resources and chief financial officer saw the video, as did the university’s outside legal counsel. At least one member of the board of governors saw it. Robert L. Barchi, the university president, has said he did not see it before last week, although at least one of his senior directors asked him to watch it.

Questionable lawyering

At the lengthy Friday press conference, Rutgers senior officials explained that in the fall, they consulted their legal counsel about how to handle the Rice situation. While perhaps engaging in some buck-passing, it is obvious that they felt they received bad advice. After speaking with their lawyers, the officials believed that Rice could be retained with the mild discipline imposed. (No doubt this informed their decision to relieve their general counsel of his duties when the story went viral.)

We don’t know the exact conversations between Rutgers officials and their lawyers last fall, but had Rutgers been my client, and even had I believed they could technically defend a decision not to fire Rice, I would’ve told them to consider the big downside risks of the light discipline they ultimately imposed (brief suspension, fine). Those risks would include future legal ramifications and creating a public perception (in this case, an accurate one) that they were sweeping abusive behaviors by their basketball coach under the rug.

In no way would that client have left the conversation without knowing my clear belief that terminating the coach was the better decision, planted on the ethical high ground.

It’s not just Rutgers

Rutgers couldn’t respond decisively and ethically to mistreatment that easily justified termination. Unfortunately, this institution is far from being alone. It simply got caught in a massively public way.

In organizations big and small, prominent and anonymous, abusive behaviors occur all the time — routinely protected, ratified, and even encouraged by a management structure that somehow doesn’t understand the human and institutional costs.

The sooner we understand that Rutgers represents a significant minority of organizations that have difficulty doing the right thing, the better we’ll comprehend the nature and impact of bullying and related behaviors at work.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Western Connections Blog » Gilbert Public Schools: Quick to “Investigate,” Slow to Learn

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