More Athletics Undersight

Administrators and trustees at Rutgers University failed to properly monitor the goings-on of sports programs, says -- yet another -- report, keeping them from properly handling an abusive former coach.

July 23, 2013

A Rutgers University committee assembled specifically to review athletics controversies found that “the university operated with inadequate internal controls, insufficient inter-departmental and hierarchical communications, an uninformed board on some specific important issues, and limited presidential leadership."

That’s not from the report Rutgers released Monday detailing how and why the university failed to address the problem of former basketball coach Mike Rice, even after administrators saw video of him assaulting players. It’s from a different report – one released five years ago and pertaining to a whole other set of problems, these dealing with improper contracting processes and coaching compensation.

And Rutgers would have done well to follow the recommendations that committee made in 2008, says this 2013 report. Because if there’s one thing that’s clear from this newest one, it’s that there was an uninformed board and limited presidential oversight.

Broadly, the recommendations in the report released this week call for more direct reporting by athletics officials to university administrators, improving risk management, and ensuring that the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees are kept abreast of athletics issues.

The findings of the report, requested in April by the Board of Governors and written by the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, are more than a little reminiscent of another investigation into a high-profile athletics scandal.

It’s been a little more than a year since the Freeh Report slammed administrators and trustees at Pennsylvania State University for failing to execute proper athletics oversight. Their inaction, that report said, allowed Penn State’s athletics program to operate as “a closed community,” insular and unchecked, and ultimately contributed to Jerry Sandusky’s ability to rape young boys on university property for years.

A similar willingness to avoid confronting a popular athletics figure was evident in the way Rutgers handled Rice, who managed to dictate the terms of his own suspension in part because neither President Robert Barchi nor members of the university’s governing boards bothered asking to see the 30-minute video of the former coach shouting homophobic and sexist slurs at players, shoving and kicking and throwing basketballs at them.

As part of their fiduciary responsibilities, many university boards can and should be more involved in the happenings of their athletic departments, the Association of Governing Boards said in a report last year.

“Central to any efforts aimed at aligning intercollegiate athletics more closely with the educational mission of colleges and universities is the responsibility of governing boards to hold those charged with administering these programs accountable to high standards,” wrote AGB, which published a model policy on board responsibilities for athletics – something one in four universities lack, an AGB survey found.

“Given their responsibilities for ensuring the academic integrity and reputation of the institutions they serve, boards should be engaged in the search for balance. Further, because board members occasionally have been associated with problems in some prominent football and basketball programs, it is time for all boards to re-examine how they exercise their oversight responsibilities.”

How This Happened

The report details how just a handful of university officials botched the whole thing.

First, interim general counsel John Wolf responded to a public records request by Rice’s former staff member – who would go on to leak the video to ESPN – by limiting the people involved in the response to just then-athletic director Tim Pernetti and the athletic department’s chief financial officer and human resources liaison, Janine Purcaro. Rice told Pernetti there was nothing of concern in the videos and they were released without internal review.

That was in July 2012. That November, the leaker’s lawyers screened the video for Pernetti, Pucaro and a couple of other individuals, who then met with Wolf and decided to launch internal investigations into Rice’s conduct. Wolf relied on Pernetti to convey the video’s contents to Barchi, who in turn relied on Pernetti to ensure the university’s lawyers would be involved and “that the matter would be reviewed diligently.” Barchi did not ask to see the video himself.

“Wolf believed that a verbal reaction could adequately convey the contents of the video and that the visual images did not add much to a full understanding of the behaviors of Coach Rice,” the report says.

Pernetti told Mark Hershorn, who at the time chaired the board’s Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics, about the video and investigations on Dec. 3, 2012. Hershorn, who didn’t watch the video, “questioned [its] authenticity” but said if it was authentic, Rice should be fired. Hershorn told Pernetti to seek inside and outside legal counsel and talk to Barchi about how to handle Rice, but did not inform any other board members about what had happened.

Pernetti and Purcaro met numerous times with Wolf and sometimes with outside counsel in late November and early December and decided they didn’t have legal cause to fire Rice, though Wolf never advised them that was the case. But Purcaro, the report says, still believed Rice should be fired “for cause.” (While Barchi maintained even after he fired Rice that he didn’t have legal cause to do so, a close reading of Rice’s contract suggests otherwise.)

Instead, Pernetti devised the following plan, on which he briefed Barchi: suspend Rice without pay for 10 games, mandate anger management for the coach, and tack an addendum onto his contract “stating that Coach Rice would be terminated for cause if specific incidents occurred.”

But Rice and his lawyer “reacted negatively” to the suspension, and later that day Pernetti finalized a more expensive but less visible punishment: a three-game suspension without pay, a $50,000 fine, mandatory anger management training, a daily practice monitor paid for by Rice, and a “zero tolerance probationary period” for the entire season.

Not until the next day did the rest of the board learn of the video and Rice’s suspension. At that meeting, Barchi – still without having seen the video – “endorsed” the punishment handed down by Pernetti, who told the governors that officials “dealt with this very proactively” and that this was “a significant hit.”

“He also mentioned that the videos showed a pattern of bad language and some physical contact,” the report says of Pernetti.

That was Dec. 13, 2012, and nobody thought about it again until March 30 of this year, when Pernetti told Barchi that ESPN planned to air the footage in a few days. Finally, Barchi said he wanted to watch it, but “due to technical difficulties” didn’t do so until the day the video aired. Barchi notified the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees that he’d fired Rice late the following morning – he informed the media first.

Pernetti, Wolf, Rice and an assistant coach all lost their jobs in the scandal’s wake. Barchi has thus far held onto his – despite renewed calls for his firing over allegations that Pernetti’s replacement, Julie Hermann, also abused players as a coach at the University of Tennessee.

What Should Change

The report’s recommendations stress presidential oversight, more and better reporting to the governing boards, and more careful attention to risk management.

First, the report says, Rutgers should require direct reporting by the athletics department’s chief financial officer and the athletics director to the senior vice president of finance and administration, a relationship that previously existed but Rutgers abandoned. Also, Rutgers should form a risk management committee – including staff from athletics, the president’s office, student affairs, general counsel, human resources and other departments – and perform a full enterprise risk management review, the report says. Such a review is designed “to view risk on a holistic level across the institution rather than in separate silos or departments.”

The report notes that 9 of the 14 institutions in the Big Ten Conference, of which Rutgers is a member, already have a risk management committee or system.

The report also suggests that Rutgers be more diligent when responding to public records requests, taking more care to identify potential concerns to the university.

And the report recommends “enhancements” to the procedures of the board and its athletics committee, including clarifying the reporting process between those two bodies, the university president and athletic director. The board should define criteria for when an issue must be brought to the attention of all members, the report says, and make sure that it and the athletics committee are meeting often enough to ensure “active rather than reactive governance.”

Improved hiring, reporting and training structures should also be put into place for the human resources staff who act as liaisons to different departments, the report says. And Rutgers should clarify what sorts of issues should be reported to the head of university relations “to ensure that serious issues are considered outside of the specific department in which they occur and to promote additional lines of communication from the departments to the central communications function.”


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