Leadership & Governance

Independent Report Outlines Insularity Behind Scandal in Rutgers U. Athletics

Mel Evans, AP Images

Mike Rice was fired this past spring as head coach of the Rutgers men's basketball team after video was broadcast of his abusive treatment of players. But months earlier, the same video prompted athletics officials to penalize him with a mere three-game suspension.
July 23, 2013

Top athletics officials at Rutgers University initially wanted to fire Mike Rice Jr. when they saw video last year of the head men's basketball coach orally and physically abusing players, but an insular review process that largely circumvented the university's human-resources office ended in lighter sanctions, an independent report released on Monday says.

The Rutgers Board of Governors commissioned the report, which was produced by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, a global law firm. The review followed criticism of the university's handling of allegations made against Mr. Rice, who was fired in April after damning video of the coach shoving and yelling at players aired on the ESPN program Outside the Lines. Mr. Rice was at first given a three-game suspension for his behavior, but he was quickly dismissed once the video became public.

The Rutgers report, which is described by its authors as "forward looking," provides a list of recommendations that amount to shortening the leash of the athletics department. The university conducted its own review of athletics in 2008 to deal with concerns about contractual agreements with a sports-marketing company and coaches' pay, but the new report says that "concerns regarding the insularity and autonomy of the athletics department as well as insufficient oversight by the president's office and board persist."

The review does not overtly condemn the university's actions, but it sheds light on the private deliberations of a tight-knit group of athletics officials and university administrators who handled the allegations against Mr. Rice.

'More Transparency' Needed

A small group of Rutgers athletics officials first reviewed a videotape of Mr. Rice's practices in November 2012, the report states. The group included Tim Pernetti, the university's athletic director at the time; Janine Purcaro, the athletics department's chief financial officer and human-resources liaison; and Doug Fillis, senior associate athletic director for administration.

"All three expressed the initial reaction that the coach should be fired, but agreed further investigation was warranted," the report states.

A subsequent investigation by an outside law firm concluded that Mr. Rice had "crossed the line" with his behavior and violated his contract, but the coach was suspended for three games rather than being fired.

Mr. Pernetti initially proposed that Mr. Rice be suspended for 10 games, but the coach and his agent "reacted negatively" and suggested that a more suitable punishment would be suspension for one to three games coupled with a financial penalty, the report states. Ultimately, Mr. Rice was suspended for three games, fined $50,000, and required to attend anger-management training.

The university's human-resources office "did not provide any substantive input on the disciplinary actions under consideration," the report says. Indeed, the only person with a human-resources function who was involved in the deliberations was Ms. Purcaro, who reports to the athletics director.

The report recommends that Rutgers establish a "dotted-line reporting requirement" between human-resources liaisons like Ms. Purcaro and the university's vice president for faculty and staff resources. Such a change would "provide for the possibility of more transparency in departmental decisions," the report states.

Rutgers officials initially viewed the video of Mr. Rice with lawyers representing Eric L. Murdock, who asserted he was wrongfully terminated as Rutgers's director of player development in June 2012 because he had raised concerns about the coach's treatment of players.

From the moment Mr. Murdock's lawyers filed an open-records request for Mr. Rice's practice tapes, the top lawyer at Rutgers insisted on a rare degree of secrecy, the report says. John B. Wolf, then the university's interim senior vice president and general counsel, told a Rutgers compliance officer to speak about the request only with Mr. Pernetti and Ms. Purcaro, who both worked in athletics. That directive appears to have broken with the standard protocol of broader review by the general counsel's office, the report says.

Before releasing the tapes, Mr. Wolf asked Mr. Rice "if there was anything in the videos of his practices that the university should be concerned about," the report says. The coach said there was nothing "that should be concerning."

The report's recommendations include the suggestion that Rutgers develop a better system of risk management to assess threats to the university and its reputation. In 2009 the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges found that many colleges lack sufficient resources for risk assessment.

President Sees Video

Robert L. Barchi, Rutgers University's president, has said throughout the controversy that he did not view the practice videos of Mr. Rice until shortly before he concluded the coach should be fired.

It was not until March 30, more than three months after he signed off on Mr. Rice's three-game suspension, that Mr. Barchi asked to see the key piece of evidence, the report states. The president's interest was piqued when Mr. Pernetti, the athletics director, e-mailed him to warn that Rutgers "should be prepared for the possible public airing of the 30-minute compilation video," the report says.

Mr. Pernetti, who appeared on the ESPN broadcast, did not provide the president with the video until the morning of April 2, the day the network aired the footage, the report states. Due to some technical difficulties, Mr. Barchi did not view the full tape until that evening, and afterward "he and Pernetti decided to terminate Coach Rice," the report says.

The report traces Mr. Barchi's decision not to view the video back to late 2012, when the allegations surfaced. Mr. Pernetti "briefly discussed Murdock's allegations and provided a verbal synopsis of the video," the review found. Mr. Wolf, who later resigned amid the uproar, "believed that a verbal recitation could adequately convey the contents of the video and that the visual images did not add much to a full understanding of the behaviors of Coach Rice."

The video included images of Mr. Rice throwing basketballs at players' heads and yelling gay slurs at them. Nothing in the report suggests Mr. Barchi was ever told of those specific behaviors, but rather he learned of "inappropriate language and some inappropriate physical contact."

As has been previously reported, the circle of people who viewed the video included Mark P. Hershhorn, then chairman of the Rutgers Board of Governors' Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics. When he saw the video, Mr. Hershhorn concluded Mr. Rice "should be fired" if the video proved authentic, the report states. No other committee members heard of the video's existence at the time, but after the suspension Mr. Pernetti described the footage to them. The behavior, he told the committee, "crossed the line."

Mr. Hershhorn stepped down as chairman of the athletics committee amid intense criticism of the university's handling of the abuse allegations. He is no longer a member of the committee, but he remains on the board.

The report's recommendations include the suggestion that Rutgers seek out athletics-committee members "with interests and expertise separate from intercollegiate athletics."