“I can’t say anything,” one male athlete at Rutgers told me as he hustled away with a friend. Then he shouted over his shoulder: “But I can throw a basketball in your face!”
Shoving and kicking players, slinging basketballs at their heads, calling them “faggots” and “fairies”—these are a few of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice’s abusive coaching tactics that players dared not speak of and school administrators silenced for months, until they were aired on ESPN Tuesday.
The now infamous video sparked condemnation from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, while the head of the New Jersey Assembly called for Rice to be fired. NBA star LeBron James shamed Rice’s behavior on Twitter: “If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards! C’mon.”
When I visited Rutgers on Wednesday, the news about Rice was blaring on every TV in the Livingston Student Center, but most student athletes refused to answer any questions about the controversy. They were adhering to a code of silence that had seemingly been reinforced by the institution.
“Our coach just told us not to talk to the media,” said one polite young man who plays football for Rutgers, removing his earphones beneath his hoodie as he walked to class. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Anyone besides an athlete might want to talk about it,” said one member of the men’s Lacrosse team. “But I have no comment.”
The same was true for two members of the women's Lacrosse team. “Sorry, we’re not allowed to talk.”
As the story made national headlines, Rutgers President Robert Barchi announced Rice’s firing in a school statement Wednesday. Rice’s dismissal came four months after athletic director Tim Pernetti saw the video and consulted with Barchi. The school punished Rice in December by suspending him from three games, fining him $75,000, and ordering him to take anger-management classes. Pernetti has said the school conducted an internal investigation into the abuse allegations twice—once in June and again in November, after watching the coach throw temper tantrums during practice and hurl homophobic epithets at his players.
Despite knowledge of Rice’s behavior, Barchi didn’t watch the video until Tuesday. Now, both Pernetti and Barchi are facing scrutiny for not cracking down sooner and harder on Rice.
“I was in total shock that this guy wasn’t fired immediately on the spot,” said Eric Murdock, a former NBA player who was hired in 2010 as former director of player development for the Scarlet Knights alongside Rice. It was Murdock who showed the footage of Rice to Pernetti in late November. He had been fired in July, after notifying Pernetti about Rice’s scurrilous treatment of his players. (Murdock is now planning to sue the school for wrongful termination.)
Murdock also said some of players suffered off the court from Rice’s constant bullying. The Lithuanian-born Gilvydas Biruta, a favorite target of Rice’s who transferred to the University of Rhode Island after two years on the team, confirmed to ESPN that his coach’s behavior drove him away.
But even more disturbing than the abuse is the administration’s decision to turn a blind eye, while the players had no choice but to bite their lip and keep quiet. One need only watch a practice video shot in February to see how some team members excused Rice’s style of inspiring by degrading, attributing it to his “fiery” personality and passion for the game.
“We have to be like boxers. You get hit and you just keep playing. That’s his coaching style and that’s how he trains us.”
David, a junior on the football team, said he wasn’t “supposed to go into any detail” about the Rice scandal but that he had friends on the basketball team. “I’ve never heard them complain about [abuse] before,” he said, speculating that many of them have never discussed it for fear of losing their scholarships.
One student who wished to remain anonymous felt the school’s lenient treatment of Rice reflected a general favoritism of Rutgers’s athletic programs by the administration—an attitude that he said explained why so many of the student-athletes on campus were remaining mum on the subject.
“The school’s extremely loyal to sports. It’s a very tight-knit community and they’re all watching out for each other’s backs.”
He cited other sticking points: the similarities between Rutgers’s delayed punishment of Rice and Penn State’s cover-up of the Jerry Sandusky scandal; the fact that Rice’s homophobic epithets weren’t enough reason for the school president to throw him out, just two years after Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old gay student at Rutgers, committed suicide following a bullying incident.
“Honestly, I haven’t even seen the video,” he said. “I don’t have the stomach for it.”