Commentary

Professors are right in Rice scandal

Unafraid of powerful sports machine, group wants Rutgers president to go

Updated: April 5, 2013, 2:44 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The teachers are doing the schooling at Rutgers, and that is the way it is supposed to be. Dozens rightfully called for the firing of athletic director Tim Pernetti, who resigned Friday, proving there is an actual heartbeat among faculty members often bulldozed by the sports machine raging about America's campuses.

More than 50 professors had reportedly signed a letter seeking Pernetti's removal, and in the end they got their man. With the firing of basketball coach Mike Rice, it's now two down and one to go. At least 28 faculty members have reportedly called for the dismissal of university president Robert Barchi, too.

They know what every right-minded observer of this depressing Mike Rice case knows:

The president and athletic director lost the moral authority to lead the moment they decided last year that Rice's repeated physical and verbal abuse of student-athletes, packaged with homophobic and misogynistic slurs, did not constitute immediate grounds for dismissal.

"Both Pernetti and Barchi should be shipped off campus as soon as possible," William C. Dowling, university distinguished professor of English and American literature at Rutgers, said on the eve of Pernetti's exit, "and their last paychecks should be sent after them."

[+] EnlargeTim Pernetti and Robert Barchi
AP Photo/Mel EvansTim Pernetti and Robert Barchi are the central figures in the fallout from the Mike Rice controversy.

At Rutgers for more than 20 years, Dowling said he wasn't among the letter writers or petition signers only because he doesn't use email or a cellphone and doesn't even own a TV. He said he lives an isolated life, in part, because of old threats from overheated boosters who vehemently opposed his since-dissolved Rutgers 1000 group and its goal of persuading the school to leave the Big East and embrace the non-scholarshipped existence of Division III.

Signed, sealed and almost delivered to the Big Ten, Rutgers won't ever retreat to the small time; even the Rice horror film that ultimately forced the coach's firing Wednesday isn't scaring the genie back into the bottle. But as perhaps the last man on the Rutgers campus -- or any campus -- who hasn't viewed the footage of Rice's abuse (he has relied on print reports of the coach's conduct), Dowling was encouraged Thursday by a rare sign of life from a profession that often cowers under its desks when sports scandals explode.

"We created a culture of opposition at Rutgers, and there's been a very strong carryover and it's wonderful to see," Dowling said by phone. "There's a dynamic at work in academia where faculty members find out their universities are really pro football or basketball franchises in disguise, and you never hear from them. They become an invisible, defeated people."

The Rutgers faculty has refused to let its leaders throw Rice to the angry masses and then hide out until football season starts. "To me and others," Dowling said, "the cover-up matters. This is a minor league version of Penn State."

Only Rutgers wasn't protecting anyone's idea of an iconic coach, as Rice had a losing record to go with his losing personality and losing approach. Yet Pernetti watched the practice tapes that would inspire any reasonable witness to conclude Rice had to be removed at once, and decided in December that the coach could be rehabbed.

It sure appears Pernetti didn't do the right thing because he was the one who hired Rice, because he wanted to minimize the damage and because he didn't want anyone or anything to rain on the school's Big Ten parade.

Yeah, the AD was protecting the program. But Tim Pernetti was protecting Tim Pernetti, too. Friday morning, he could protect himself no more.

"To see the tape and feel the coach could be suspended and fined and redeemed through anger management, it's hard to believe," said Murray Sperber, a professor emeritus at Indiana and author of four books on the ills of big-time college sports. "Rice should've been gone right away, and especially in the context of [Joe] Paterno and Penn State, neglecting to act is stunning."

A longtime critic of former Indiana coach and current ESPN college basketball analyst Bob Knight, Sperber called Rice "Bob Knight squared, to the 10th power or something" and said he would have signed a petition "in a millisecond" to terminate Pernetti and Barchi for their failure to terminate Rice after the coach's former aide, Eric Murdock, supplied them with the tapes.

"The first thing that's going to come up at academic meetings and conferences for Rutgers' professors is going to be, 'Oh, you teach at that school where that coach went nuts and beat on his players,'" Sperber said. "Rutgers has very distinguished programs and faculty, but try telling that to people now."

Of course, after Pernetti revealed Barchi had seen the Rice footage, the president made it clear he'd only seen it Tuesday -- the day ESPN's "Outside the Lines" broadcast the footage -- and not when his AD saw it in the fall. So Barchi admitted he was told months ago there was video of one of his most visible employees abusing multiple students, multiple times, and he never asked to see that video.

"I can't imagine the president not even taking five minutes to watch it," Sperber said.

"Barchi either knew exactly what was going on and didn't do anything about it, in which case he should be fired," Dowling said. "Or he didn't know about it and is incompetent, in which case he should be fired. I don't see a third possibility."

Some Rutgers faculty members don't see one, either. They understand that degrading students with homophobic slurs can't happen at any school, and certainly not at the school of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to film a romantic encounter with another man.

The faculty understand that if Rice had a gay player on his roster, that kid would have suffered terribly in silence.

They understand that any professor found to have thrown a textbook at the head or body of a student would've been fired, if not arrested.

They understand that the Hey, these are the guys who got us into the Big Ten defense was always an embarrassing argument for keeping Pernetti and Barchi employed.

But just as loudly as politicians were calling for more heads to roll, boosters were calling for Pernetti to be spared in vain. Sure they were. And the professors who opposed them will be dismissed in some corners of jockdom as haters trying to score some revenge of the nerds. Or worse.

In 2007, Dowling was branded a racist by Rutgers administrators he had opposed for telling The New York Times that athletic scholarships were sometimes given to "a functional illiterate who can't read a cereal box" and for saying this of minority recruits: "If you want to give financial help to minorities, go find the ones who are at the library after school."

Dowling said he'd been arrested doing civil rights work in the '60s. He maintained that he'd been asked specifically about minority students, that Rutgers' response was a cheap attempt at payback for his stance on big-time sports, and that African-American educators had contacted him to offer their support.

Six years later, he knows people can still get steamrolled when they speak against sports programs run amok. A three-sport jock in high school, Dowling said he doesn't see a coming trend of teachers willing to stand up to Division I administrators who try to protect the Mike Rices of the world.

"You're not going to see that movement," he said. "The forces of billions of dollars of TV revenue at the top, and faculty despair at the bottom, are too powerful."

But apparently not at Rutgers, where dozens of teachers refused to remain quiet in the name of the smoothest possible transition to the Big Ten. These faculty members want all the enablers of a vile bully to be held accountable, and Tim Pernetti shouldn't be the last one to pay with his job.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE