The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Rutgers’ Rice Is A Bully Because He’s Afraid Of Being A Loser

Look at it this way: If Rutgers coach Mike Rice hadn’t gotten fired last week after ESPN broadcast video of him shoving players, hurling basketballs at them, and screaming that they were “faggots” and worse, he was a good bet to get dumped next year after another losing season.

Given Rice’s 44-51 record after three years at New Jersey’s state university, his tenure there was clearly shaky. Nor would Rutgers’ impending move to the Big Ten have made things easier. All of which may have had much to do with the coach’s overwrought behavior. That’s not an alibi, merely an explanation.

Unlike most college teachers, coaches of the money sports at NCAA Division I schools get evaluated in the most public way possible—by their students’ performances on national TV. In return they’re more than amply rewarded. Rice’s yearly salary was $750,000; Tim Pernetti, the athletic director scapegoated for failing to fire him back at the beginning of the basketball season when his transgressions first became known to the Rutgers administration, collected a $1.3 million bonus on his way out the gym door.

But hey, it’s not academia; it’s a combination of showbiz and semi-pro sports. We could all save ourselves a lot of angst by keeping that in mind. No, universities in other countries don’t function as jock factories. The Sorbonne doesn’t recruit defensive tackles, and the biggest intercollegiate sporting event in Great Britain is a boat race that’s basically an excuse for a garden party. But that’s how we do it here in the USA, and how we’re going to keep doing it, so you soreheads in the Sociology department may as well give it a rest.

As the Rolling Stones once observed in a different context, “I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.”

It follows that Rice could have handled his players like a combination of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but one more sub-.500 season and he’d have found himself looking for work at the high-school level. Or signing a one-year contract as somebody’s assistant; a second-stringer for life. Rice had put himself under terrific pressure at Rutgers, and it appears he wasn’t handling it well.

That said, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a guy who knows a lot about yelling, definitely got it right. “You have lots of successful coaches in this country at the college level who don’t act this way,” he said. “You never hear allegations like this about [Duke] Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski, or about Coach [Bill] Self in Kansas, or about Coach [Roy] Williams in North Carolina—all who you could say have much higher-pressure programs that they run, with much higher expectations for winning, than Rutgers, yet they don’t conduct themselves like animals.”

No, but you used to hear allegations about Indiana’s Bobby Knight, today an avuncular presence in the broadcast booth. Famous for his volcanic temper and his fierce loyalty to his players—which most reciprocated—Knight survived as long as he did at IU by winning three national championships as well as an Olympic gold medal. But he also cursed like a drill instructor’s parrot, threw things, and pitched fearsome temper tantrums. He also ran a clean program, graduated players, and taught some of the game’s most successful coaches–notably Duke’s Krzyzewski.

What I’m leading up to saying here is something I’ve heard a lot of athletes and would-be athletes like me say in the wake of the Rutgers revelations: that given all the hubbub, we expected the videos to be far more disturbing. Back in high school, I’d actually secured standing permission from my father to hit my basketball coach back.  Just out of college, our coach used to scrimmage with us and play dirty. It seemed to me that I was his special target.

When I eventually did throw an elbow at his ear, the coach stopped play and congratulated me for showing some fight. His perception was that I was coasting on the court and in the classroom, selling myself short by refusing to go all out. I’ll spare you the self-analysis, but basically he was right. There was no miraculous transformation. I wasn’t going to be an all-state athlete anyway. But he definitely got my attention in a way that I’ve never forgotten.

So anyway, let’s keep things in perspective; these things happened in the gym, not the library. The wonder to me as a Rutgers alumnus is that nobody shoved Coach Rice back. These are Jersey boys and Division I athletes. I’d have expected them to show more spunk. Maybe they feared losing their scholarships. For all the hyperbolic rhetoric about “indentured servitude,” being a college basketball player can be an awful lot of fun.

As Rice has himself acknowledged, his bullying, misogyny and homophobia weren’t signs of strength, but of weakness and fear of failure.

AP Photo/Rich Schultz, File


Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

Youtube Screenshot

In late 2011, John Oliver and his Daily Show cameraman made a trek to my office, then in Providence, Rhode Island, to take me to task. I had recently referred to the Tea Partiers who had pushed America to the brink of a disastrous default as "economic terrorists."

Oliver had apparently swallowed whole a series of barbs directed my way by a Wall Street Journal blogger who didn't seem to like women much. The blogger kept calling me the "Civility diva" and a "Baroness Catherine Ashton lookalike." (A member of the British parliament, Ashton was said to be homely.) He was quite the wit.

Keep reading...Show less

Donald Trump and Mike Pence

Youtube Screenshot

Several mainstream media outlets are manufacturing a political narrative that the discovery of classified documents at the homes of both President Joe Biden and former Vice President Mike Pence should alleviate pressure on disgraced former President Donald Trump, who not only took a vast trove of federal records but also refused to give them back.

Biden and Pence have both cooperated with federal investigators to recover and return documents that belong to the government, and both situations have rekindled scrutiny at the overall system of federal document classification and retention, which appears to be in serious need of reform. Their two examples stand in stark contrast to Trump’s behavior, and possible misconduct, regarding his own handling of government records.

Keep reading...Show less
{{ }}