The Final Four Verdict: Rutgers Fouls Out

When college basketball’s Final Four landed in Atlanta this year, I got a chance to experience the tournament’s excitement up close with my cousin Michael and his son Dan.

They introduced me to their friends—coaches, former players and devoted fans. I don’t know much about basketball, but I got a sense of school, game and sporting values from the event that leaders of the basketball program at Rutgers University should have learned a long time ago. The university’s head basketball coach Mike Rice was fired April 3 for engaging in abusive, unprofessional treatment of his players.

During the week leading up to the Final Four, video clips surfaced showing multiple incidents involving Rice screaming, shoving, cursing and throwing basketballs at his players.

No one in Michael’s and Dan’s group is a lawyer or HR professional. But they all know the sport. I asked them what they thought about Rice’s conduct as Rutgers’ head basketball coach. They’d watched the video, heard the stories and were unanimous: “They all have to go.”

They meant Rice, athletic director Timothy Pernetti, university President Robert Bianchi, and maybe others. What they read and saw enraged them.

They didn’t need months to figure out whether to determine if some state statute or federal law may have been breached or whether there were procedural defenses from blunt legal risk in visibly abusive, out-of-bounds acts.

The point you don’t do this to students; they’re young adults and that’s not how to motivate them or treat them. That’s not what student athletics is all about.

Days after the tape aired, Rutgers fired Rice. A few days later, the athletic director resigned.

A day or so before the Final Four started, Rutgers released an investigative report of the incident prepared by the firm of Conley. It dissects the specific incidents, attempts to present them it in the context of a team trying to improve its culture and performance. Overall, the legal analysis concluded that while Rice’s conduct might warrant dismissal, it did not violate any applicable statutes.

Too bad legal reports can’t be scored like basketball games, as this one would have fouled out on technicals. Arguing, for example, that multiple episodes of abusive conduct need to be considered in the context of hours of “proper” behavior, as the report did, is akin to saying that a physically abusive spouse should not be prosecuted because he or she only beat their mate up badly once or twice during their marriage.

We don’t need to look at conduct that narrowly in our athletic, academic or industrial workplaces. There are many violations that can withstand legal scrutiny but not principles of basic human decency.

Rutgers is a fine institution committed to building a respectful community. Parsing abusive conduct without regard to its impact on that community, its organizational values, reputation and overall brand is narrow, shortsighted and unworthy of the university.

It also poses an object lesson for other employers, executives and organizations. Limit yourselves to looking at behavior through a small legal lens and the losses you suffer may be far worse than a single claim or lawsuit will ever be.

Leaders who myopically accept such analyses abdicate their decision making and leadership roles when they do. They also create extraordinary risk. For many schools, it’s a disappointment not to qualify for the Final Four, let alone March Madness.

But seeing your students abused, clearly outrageous behavior ignored, and your reputation besmirched is a disaster.