Editorial Board

Rutgers Scandal Should Surprise No One, Horrify Everyone

Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice finally got what was coming to him.

Rice had been briefly suspended and fined in December for behavior that the school at the time euphemistically referred to as “not to the Rutgers standard.” This week, after a video surfaced of Rice’s insane, profane and violent treatment of his players during practices, the coach was belatedly relieved of his post and the university quasi-apologized. Now, faculty members are calling for the ouster of Rutgers President Robert Barchi.

The larger lesson for the academic world here is a familiar one that bears repeating: The pursuit of big-time athletic glory far too often comes at the cost of common sense -- both moral and fiscal.

Rutgers knew exactly what it was getting into with Rice. It should have, at any rate: Rice was already infamous for his fanaticism, even by the elevated standards of college basketball, and the school felt secure enough in his on-court prowess to offer him $650,000 annually, plus generous benefits -- paid for by New Jersey taxpayers.

Two Failures

In doing so, the school’s most obvious failure was an ethical one. The use of salty language is not unknown in locker rooms. Nor is it overly troublesome in itself. Rice’s ranting, however, was so vile and abusive that it’s hard to believe the man was ever entrusted to oversee students. The video showed him using homophobic taunts -- this at the school where a student committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate filmed him in a romantic encounter with another man -- as well as shoving, kicking and throwing basketballs at his players. Many of those players, remember, are teenagers.

In short, the episode exemplified how the college sports machine routinely treats athletes as commodities. And it made a mockery, yet again, of the supposition that athletic programs conceive of their primary goal as an educational one.

The second failure revealed by this episode was financial. In 2007, Rutgers scrapped six varsity teams, and left dozens of student athletes in the lurch, ostensibly to ameliorate chronic budget problems. We say “ostensibly” because funding for athletics actually increased substantially in the next few years -- even as the school fired employees, reduced classes and raised tuition and student fees. A more plausible reason for the cuts was to focus more on football and basketball, and thereby boost the school’s athletic profile.

According to data compiled by USA Today, Rutgers spent $60.2 million on its athletics programs in 2011, of which 47 percent -- more than $28 million -- was subsidized by the school. That, according to data , is the largest subsidy among 54 U.S. public universities in the six biggest football conferences. The school has been bestowing this largess even as its state funding fell 10 percent in the three fiscal years through June 2012.

This is egregious on its face. Even more so when the putative rewards of athletic success for a school -- increased applications and alumni donations -- have been shown to be temporary or illusory.

And what about Barchi? A few observations. What kind of an educator would only suspend someone who had treated students so monstrously? And what kind of leader doesn’t recognize when a school’s priorities have become so distorted that such behavior is not only tolerated but generously subsidized? Barchi, who started in 2012, didn’t cause the problems at Rutgers. As president, however, he had a responsibility to start mitigating them. When he learned of Rice’s behavior last year, he had an obvious opportunity to start changing the school’s culture for the better. He failed.