Missing the point on the firing of Mike Rice

This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.

After Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired over his abusive actions towards his players, I spoke to a lot of friends and colleagues to get their take on how it all went down. 

Opinions about the firing, which occurred after a video showcasing Rice dishing out tons of physical and verbal abuse made its way online, seem to diverge into two camps.

On the one hand, some think it was absolutely inexcusable that it took so long for Athletic Director Tim Pernetti to fire Rice, who saw the video five months ago and decided the appropriate punishment was to suspend the coach for three games and fine him $75,000. Remember, Rice’s homophobic outbursts came in the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a fellow hall-mate shared webcam video of Clementi kissing another man.

Their view seems to be substantiated by the resignation of Pernetti, who threw himself on his sword over what university president Robert Barchi called a “failure of process” during a press conference on Friday.

Another group of friends, who tend to skew older, don’t necessarily defend Rice’s actions, but it’s obvious they’re not too concerned with them either. Most recalled back to their days playing basketball, and remember coaches yelling, pushing and acting not so differently than Rice. Sean Hannity echoed these comments on his popular Fox News show, saying that he kind-of liked the “old-fashioned discipline” that Rice exuded.

College is more than sports

The problem with both of these opinions is that they miss the elephant in the room – the dominance of college athletics over academics that is being driven by big sports contracts and lots and lots of money, none of which go to the players and doesn’t even cover the costs of the school’s sports programs.

Hannity derided players who were forced to deal with Rice’s abusive actions by saying they have the choice to leave and go play somewhere else. “They’re adults,” Hannity said (he’s wrong, they’re kids).

The reason most of them are at Rutgers is because of the generous scholarships they received to attend a college that in many cases has become out of reach financially for many families. Last year, both tuition and room and board were increased, jacking up the cost of attending a state college to over $24,000 for in-state undergraduates living on campus.

High cost of sports

On the flipside, Mike Rice was paid over $655,000 last year to coach a very mediocre basketball team that finished 15-16 despite all of his hard-edged motivational techniques. Women’s basketball coach Vivian Stringer earned $1 million last year, making her the state’s highest paid employee. 

And don’t get me started on the lavish benefits and pay Rutgers threw at former head football coach Greg Schiano, who’s brief run of success can be summed up in two words – Ray Rice.

Based on data complied by Bloomberg, Rutgers spent more money on athletics than any other public institution in the six biggest football conferences during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Despite cuts to sports ranging from crew to fencing, the sports program didn’t come close to breaking even. As a result, more than 40 percent of sports revenue came from student fees and the university’s general fund. 

This problem isn’t unique to Rutgers. In 2011, sports programs cost more then they brought in at 48 of the largest names in college sports. The rationale is always that sports helps market the schools by exposure, visibility and positive branding, although having perennial losing seasons and coaches that call players “faggots” seems to argue against any good will the program creates.

I’m not saying colleges should get rid of sports. I’m a huge sports fan, and college athletics plays an important role in the development of young men and women into adults.

I just think colleges really need to re-think their priorities. When the highest paid employee in the state is a coach at the same time we’re laying off public employees, cutting university aid and nixing professors, something’s gone terribly wrong. 

Or maybe it’s just a coincidence underpaid professors never seem to get in trouble for calling their students “faggots” and “fairies.”


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on Twitter @RobTornoe.

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