If you doubt the power of visualization and video when it comes to telling a story, then refer to what happened yesterday with Rutgers coach Mike Rice. Rice was suspended three games for throwing basketballs at the heads of players in December; that news was out there. We had a story (citing to the Newark Star-Ledger) on the suspension, and I’m sure plenty of news outlets reported it. I don’t recall any calls for the firing of Mike Rice based on the early reports. Yesterday, though, when the video emerged, that all changed.
This morning, the word has come that Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti has fired Mike Rice, faced with no new information in his possession, other than the public reaction to his previous decision in light of the video.
Of course, that’s public viewing of the Rice video not all that changed. The Mike Rice story also demonstrates the power of controlling the message and getting ahead of a story, and what happens when the control is relinquished when others can judge the evidence for themselves.
That loss of control, and how the message originally delivered does not match what is now known, is why Rutgers Athletic Director Tim Pernetti could be in trouble. It’s not a mere matter of misjudging how serious a violation it was, and not imposing a severe enough penalty.
Here were Pernetti’s comments back in December, when the suspensions were announced:
“It’s a difficult situation, certainly,” Pernetti said during a conference call this afternoon. “I was made aware of some things in the last couple of weeks. We commenced a pretty thorough and lengthy investigation and this was the result of that investigation. There was obviously some things that are not to the Rutgers standard that we evaluated.”
The press release from Pernetti issued at the time also said that it “followed an internal investigation that revealed abusive, profane language used by Rice toward his players and an incident during his first or second season in which Rice threw basketballs at some players’ heads during practice.”
Is any of that true? Well, not entirely. Those are the issues that Pernetti must now face in the aftermath of firing Mike Rice. The punishment appeared to be for an isolated incident, not a consistent pattern of behavior from multiple practices, showing continued behavior (Rice asking for a ball so he could immediately chuck another one at a player, for example).
Former Providence guard Eric Murdock was the whistleblower on the matter, and brought it to the attention of Pernetti last summer.
Some quotes from the above video on yesterday’s Outside The Lines:
“We did meet, have a conversation with Eric, when there were allegations made, I was very clear with the other side, that if there was any information with facts to back that up.”
“There were conversations in the summer, but nothing to back up any of those allegations was presented until November.”
In response to questions on what actions were taken when Murdock first reported: “In the summer, we went through discussions with our men’s basketball staff, current and former players.”
Eric Murdock worked for the program for two years, and his contract was not renewed, for what Pernetti referred to as insubordination for attending a basketball camp that Mike Rice did not want him to attend. That factual background will raise lots of questions on the timing, and what Rice knew and when about Murdock and his views toward Rice’s practice behavior. There might be questions as to whether Rice’s reasoning was “pretextual.”
In addition, the reports in December said this was investigated immediately. Comparing the statements yesterday, though, one of two things happened. Either Pernetti is lying and he really did not do any follow up investigation when Murdock first brought it to his attention in the summer, only jumping into action when confronted with stark video evidence, or other people lied. Among those would have to be Mike Rice if Pernetti actually did any sort of due diligence (and Pernetti said he had “discussions with the men’s basketball staff).
If I am in a position of authority in the State of New Jersey, I would have some hard questions for Tim Pernetti. If Mike Rice lied to you in the summer, how was that not a factor on top of the explosive video that emerged, in the punishment and going ahead and terminating him. If he didn’t lie to you, because you never actually confronted him, and instead you non renewed the contract of an employee based on his claims of insubordination who turned out to be the whistleblower … well, that’s even worse.
I don’t think Pernetti is out of the woods by any means by terminating Rice now. Set aside the decision itself to determine three games of suspension versus termination on the characterization of this as “an incident” that he called a first time offense yesterday. There are numerous questions about whether the investigation really was conducted appropriately and in a timely manner. In addition to the public relations nightmare, Rutgers is now likely facing a lawsuit from Eric Murdock that has a far better chance of success now than if Pernetti had handled things differently when information first emerged.