NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Officials, students and activists are praising Rutgers University for firing a men’s basketball coach who shoved and kicked players and berated them with a gay slur during practice.
But some are calling for more investigation on how the school previously fumbled the situation, which touches on some long-running issues on campus: Whether the sports program has become too prominent and how gay students are treated.
Mike Rice was ousted Wednesday, a day after the public got its first look at excerpts of video showing Rice’s practice-time tirades, including him throwing basketballs at players.
Gov. Chris Christie, who restructured New Jersey’s higher education system last year to try to give Rutgers, its flagship institution, more research clout, called it “a regrettable episode for the university” and said it was best to get rid of Rice, who was brought in three years ago.
Some alumni, students and groups such as the gay-rights organization Garden State Equality, though, called for a deeper investigation into why Rice was kept on this season rather than fired last year when the video was first given to university officials by a former basketball program employee. The group’s executive director, Troy Stevenson, also said that athletic director Tim Pernetti should resign or be fired if he knew about Rice’s conduct months ago.
“I’m puzzled as to how anyone could think Mr. Rice was someone who should be representing our state university on a national level,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat who later said lawmakers could hold legislative hearings on the topic. “I expect a full and detailed explanation from the Rutgers administration as to why Mr. Rice was not dismissed sooner and how exactly that decision was made.”
Troubles with Rice first became public late last year when he was suspended for three games, fined and ordered to anger management counseling after the video was provided to university officials.
It blew up publicly when Pernetti presented the video to reporters Tuesday as ESPN was preparing to air it. Rutgers announced the firing Wednesday on Twitter and then through a news release, but has not made its president, athletic director or the chairman of the board of governors available to take questions from reporters.
Speaking with reporters outside his home in Little Silver, Rice apologized for his actions.
“It’s troubling, but at some time maybe I’ll try to explain it,” he said. “But right now there’s no explanation for what’s on those films. There is no excuse for it. I was wrong. I want to tell everybody who’s believed in me that I’m deeply sorry for the pain and hardship that I’ve caused.”
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi, who took office in September, said Wednesday that he had been told about Rice’s tirades months ago and agreed to discipline the coach, including fines and withheld salary totaling $75,000.
Barchi said in a statement that seeing the video this week helped him conclude that the men’s basketball coach should be fired, a decision he said he made along with Pernetti.
“I have now reached the conclusion that coach Rice cannot continue to serve effectively in a position that demands the highest levels of leadership, responsibility and public accountability,” Barchi said.
Pernetti has said that about 60 percent of the clips on the video, which was made by former basketball program employee Eric Murdock, were in Rice’s first year as coach, during the 2010-11 season. If so, the incidents came soon after a campus tragedy brought about introspection and policy changes regarding how gay students are treated.
In 2010, the university got widespread attention when freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself after his roommate used a webcam to see him kissing another man. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, spent 20 days in jail last year after being convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other crimes.
Two members of Congress from New Jersey, Democratic Rep. Rush Holt and Sen. Frank Lautenberg are pushing a federal bill named after Clementi that would prohibit harassment of college students by other students, faculty and staff. The two said Wednesday that the law would have applied to Rice had it been in place.
Rutgers has also had years of angst over the growing role and costs of a top-notch sports program, which is a relatively new development for a school that had long fielded also-rans in the high-profile sports of football and men’s basketball. Rice had high expectations but not much success, coaching his team to a 44-51 record in three years, including a 16-38 mark in Big East play.
Eric Young, an 18-year-old first-year student, said what he saw in the video was unacceptable, but he said it wasn’t unusual. “I want to see how many coaches do the same thing,” he said.
Christie said in a statement: “As we move on from this incident, I am very optimistic that Rutgers will select a new head coach who not only puts a winning team on the court, but will make everyone proud of the example he sets every day for the young men in his charge.”
State Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democrat expected to face Christie in the gubernatorial election in November, held a news conference at Rutgers to echo calls for a deeper investigation.
“We need to restore the reputation of Rutgers to the extent that it’s been damaged by this,” she said.
Additional reporting by Dave Martin
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