Now that March Madness has ended and the recruiting season has begun, remind me not to play basketball for Rutgers. I'd prefer to reserve my efforts for someplace where my talents are appreciated rather than abused. I need to work on my 40-minute stamina and some concession for my age has to be made, but before I play for a physically or verbally abusive coach, I'll hang up the sneakers. Of course, I have the luxury of having nothing to lose, unlike the unfortunate student-athletes at Rutgers University, who would put their college careers and any hope of playing professional basketball in jeopardy if they had criticized their foul-tempered bully of a head coach, Mike Rice. They just had to grin and bear it, until someone posted an online video of their practices, which tended to look more like scenes out of Fight Club. And we all know the first rule of Fight Club.
The now-viral video, first given to the university and ESPN by a so-called whistle-blower, shows ex-coach Rice shoving, kicking, brutalizing, and screaming epithets at his players, calling them fairies and faggots, while bouncing basketballs off their heads. It only proves just how much these young men have to lose or else someone would have, and probably should have, coldcocked him.
The resulting public uproar got Rice fired, even though Rutgers was aware of his abusive conduct and knew about the incriminating video at the beginning of the season. The university issued a report in December, criticizing the video for "taking many situations out of context" and absolving the coach of accusations that he "created a hostile work environment." The university's examination of the torture video resulted in a $50,000 fine, a suspension for three games without pay, and an agreement that Rice undergo anger-management therapy and have his behavior monitored. The resulting outrage over that petty, hand-check-foul punishment caused the resignations of the athletic director, the university's top in-house lawyer, and an assistant coach. University president Robert Barchi now claims he probably should have watched the video.
Just when it seemed college basketball could get no uglier, the whistle-blower, ostensibly doing a good deed by exposing a bad coach, is now under investigation by the FBI. The Associated Press reports that Eric Murdock, former director of player development under Rice, may have attempted to extort the university before the videos became public. An FBI report says that a lawyer representing Murdock requested a sum of $950,000 from the university to "settle employment issues" or face a lawsuit. Murdock has since filed suit as the good guy, claiming Rutgers dismissed him for being the whistle-blower. It is unknown who originally taped the coach's deplorable conduct, but Murdock received multiple hours of videos of such incidences and edited the tape down to the 30 minutes currently in public circulation. It becomes difficult to tell if this is college basketball or Abu Ghraib.
No one with a hint of empathy for those cowed students could justify such violent tactics by their coach. But over at Fox News, where group-think is reality, everyone got the memo to turn a sports story about an ugly incident into a sociological commentary on the state of manhood in contemporary society. Sean Hannity drooled that he approved of the "old-fashioned discipline," while Michelle Malkin nodded in agreement that this was a left-wing, nanny-state condemnation of a tough coach trying to instill discipline in his wards. The most incredulous commentary of all came from a talking potato named Eric Bolling, who blathered that "this is our culture in free fall" and "this is the wussification of American men."
God, I hate that word. Hearing Bolling call for corporal punishment reminded me of the bad old days in parochial school, when teachers were permitted to beat, pound, and paddle their students. Bolling said a whack across the legs with a wooden paddle "never hurt anyone." I'm hear to tell ya, it hurt me. It turned me into a good didact, but nobody knows what that means anyway. Watching Rice kick those young men reminded me of those sadistic coaches in high school. These days, that "old-fashioned discipline" would be called assault.
Rutgers has a lot at stake. They made the mistake of protecting the coach instead of the players. Rice's 2012 salary was $655,000, and he was only in his third year, with a 44-51 record. But, as called for in his contract, Rutgers will pay Rice a $100,000 bonus for "longevity." The myopic athletic director will receive $1.25 million in a severance pay package.
Here's hoping that the next coach won't feel so much pressure to win in the Big 10 that he resorts to violence. Rice's former school, Robert Morris University, is now investigating his behavior at that institution. The aforementioned "whistle-blower," Murdock, contends that there were at least "five coaches-versus-player brawls in practice." Rutgers should look on the bright side. After Robert Morris took leave of Mike Rice, its new coach, Andy Toole, took the Colonials to this years' NIT and beat John Calipari's defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats in the first round. It doesn't get much sweeter than that — proving once again that you can catch more flies with honey than with vitriol.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.