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Topics In the News
Words Matter: The Firing of Mike Rice
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/04/13
Last updated on: 04/05/13
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Coach Mike Rice.

On April 2, 2013, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" broadcast a video in which Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice is shown shoving, manhandling, berating, and throwing balls at players. Although the video was first brought to the attention of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti in November 2012, only when it became public did the university respond appropriately. Following widespread outrage, on April 3, 2013 Rice was fired and an assistant coach resigned. [Later, Pernetti and the interim university counsel also resigned.] Even more egregious than Rice's physical abuse of his players was his verbal abuse, especially his repeated use of homophobic slurs.

In addition to documenting the coach's physical abuse of his players, the video also depicts him referring to players as "f----ts," "f-----g fairies," "p-----s," "sissy b-----s," and "c---s," among other epithets. This language of homophobia and misogyny says a great deal about sports culture. The fact that it did not provoke outrage from other coaches and administrators at Rutgers says a lot about the continuing insensitivity to homophobia of Rutgers University officials even after the consciousness-raising and hand-wringing following the suicide of Tyler Clementi in September 2010.

The most shocking aspect of the entire episode is the failure of Pernetti and Rutgers University President Robert Barchi to fire Rice when they first became aware of the coach's abusive behavior. Instead of firing the coach, they imposed a three-game suspension, a fine, and an obligation to attend anger management classes. In doing so, they sent a message that homophobic speech is not a very big deal, even at a university supposedly newly committed to creating a welcoming and safe environment for glbtq students.

As ESPN's Dana O'Neil observed, "Words matter, and they carry weight with as much heft as a shove."

She added, "Every time a university looks the other way or dishes out a dismissive punishment, it's like sending an abuser back into the home of a domestic violence victim."

The story about Mike Rice's firing is not only a sports story, but also a story about gays in sports and gays on campus.

On April 5, it was announced that Pernetti and the university's interim general counsel had resigned. At a press conference, President Barchi explained that he had not seen the video until it became public. He apologized particularly to the glbtq community and described himself as a champion of the community.

While there have been calls for Barchi's resignation, more important is the need for a fuller explanation of why Rice was not fired earlier. Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, has called for an investigation into why Rice was not fired in November.

A faculty member who engaged in Rice's behavior would have immediately been removed from the classroom. Why, then, was Rice given a slap on the wrist? Clearly, standards of behavior for coaches are different from those expected of faculty members.

Once the video of Rice abusing his players went viral, the university responded quickly and decisively. Obviously, it took public exposure to force the university to do the right thing.

Is this because of the corrosive influence of big-time athletics on universities? (Some have speculated that Pernetti, who was in the midst of negotiating Rutgers's admission to the Big Ten athletic conference when he first learned of complaints about Rice, did not want any distractions that might endanger the negotiations. Did he fail to act in November because he wanted to avoid the questions and publicity that would have followed Rice's dismissal?)

It is likely that Rice's homophobic and misogynistic comments failed to make much of an impression on Pernetti. He may have considered them so commonplace in sports as to hardly merit attention and likely failed to connect them to the homophobic atmosphere that contributed to Tyler Clementi's suicide.

The pervasiveness of homophobia in locker rooms helps explain why it is so difficult for elite glbtq athletes to come out. As we await the appearance of our Jackie Robinson--an openly gay professional athlete in one of the major sports--it is well to consider sympathetically why he hesitates to open the closet door and what burdens he will have to face when he does.

Below is an ESPN report on the video that led to Rice's dismissal.

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