It’s official – the scandal surrounding the Rutgers University men’s basketball team is moving along with all deliberate speed. Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and other administrators including school president, Robert Barchi, finally did what needed to be done and fired embattled men’s basketball coach Mike Rice after a video of him shoving, physically hitting and kicking them and berating them with abusive language (homophobic slurs and sexist remarks) went viral. Rice was initially fined $50,000, suspended for three games and ordered to attend anger management by Pernetti. Pernetti insists that he and President Barachi took the therapeutic route with Rice in an effort to “rehabilitate” the coach prone to tantrums and meltdowns. How interesting is it that the school would choose the “rehabilitative” route with Rice, yet choose a punitive route when it comes to Eric Murdock, who henceforth and forever more will be known as a “whistleblower.”
While many have a lot to say about Murdock, he is not a scrub by any stretch of the imagination. Murdock led Bridgewater West High School to two state titles, set the NCAA record for career steals at Providence and was selected by the Utah Jazz in the first round of the 1991 NBA Draft, retiring from the NBA in 2003. Murdock is really the man at the center of this scandal because he is the person who actually brought Rice’s terrorism of players to the attention of Rutgers University officials. Murdock says that he notified officials of Rice’s ill behavior even before he showed Pernetti the videotape and nothing happened, primarily because Rice would be on his best behavior when Pernetti attended practices. One could deduce that this lack of response caused Murdock to videotape the practices over the course of two years (2010-2012) and prompted his dismissal from the team and quite possibly a career in coaching.
Keith Clinkscales, Founder and CEO of TheShadowLeague.com believes that Murdock acted in the best interest of the students. “I wouldn’t call him a whistleblower. It’s courageous that Murdock actually spoke out against what was happening. There’s a certain omertà that exists in coaching so speaking out now for him is still very difficult,” says Clinkscales. Murdock’s long career in basketball suggests that he knew the potential consequences of his actions by informing Pernetti about what was happening, so his motivation was not necessarily in keeping his job, but in protecting players.
What was the motivation of Pernetti, Barachi and other administrators to keep Rice, who was in the midst of three back-to-back losing seasons as head coach and dismiss Murdock, a man who had excelled in basketball at all levels? Some would argue racism, while others would say the culture of the game. “Letting personnel contracts lapse or expire isn’t an uncommon thing in basketball. I don’t know if that was a racial thing or an anger thing. Rice was an equal opportunity offender. Before I would move to a racial conclusion I would move to a misdirected anger conclusion which became a part of Rice’s coaching style and the line began to blur between a hard-nosed approach to coaching and what qualifies as abuse.”
Jason Woullard, President of ARHE Network, believes that race is a factor in how players are treated. “I was disgusted watching the video of Mike Rice and troubled that this type of behavior was tolerated by the school. I coached high school basketball last season and know that many of our Black kids put up with this because I am sure that coach Rice was probably also very loyal to them in other ways. In my experience, many of these coaches serve as father figures to Black kids because of the lack of Black fathers that many have in our society.”
Which brings us back to Murdock, who was the head of player development. While many believe that Murdock was motivated by personal reasons, the fact remains that he did actually move forward with the evidence, quite possible ending any possibility of ever being a head basketball coach, which he was poised to do based on his career trajectory. This possible outcome is an issue for a major sport with a lack of Black college coaches.
Clinkscales offers, “Understand that Murdock is making a tough call in a coaching fraternity that’s not easy for African Americans to break in on. Look at Shaka Smart at VCU and Tommy Amaker at Harvard. These are moments and it’s difficult to do something that may derail the moment. African Americans don’t get very many of these moments, so this is how race is an issue in this case.”
Since Rice’s firing, a group of 13 faculty members have called for President Barachi, who took office in September 2012, to step-down for his mishandling of the situation, because of the double standard. Two players including prominent sophomore guard Jerome Seagears are transferring. I wonder if there will be calls for Murdock’s reinstatement?
While there are certainly calls for more firings, one “firing” in particular started it all; Pernetti’s decision to allow Eric Murdock’s contract to lapse as director of player development instead of firing Rice as head coach when the unthinkable came to light. One can ponder about what motivated that poor decision-making, but the result will be the same: a Black man with a promising college coaching career has, in all likelihood, lost the opportunity to fulfill it and that is quite possibly worthy of a meltdown.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is founder and editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire, which covers news, opinion and culture of the African Diaspora. She serves as editor-at-large for TheRoot.com. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire.