Skip to main content

Rutgers president needs reality check

By Steve Politi, Special to CNN
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed May 29, 2013
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi introduces Julie Hermann as the school's new athletic director on May 15.
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi introduces Julie Hermann as the school's new athletic director on May 15.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steve Politi: How could Rutgers hire anyone with a questionable coaching background?
  • Athletic director Julie Hermann had promised new era at Rutgers after Mike Rice debacle
  • Politi: Sports shape the public image of a school and dominate media attention
  • Politi asks how Rutgers president didn't understand reach of an athletics scandal

Editor's note: Steve Politi is a sports columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter: @StevePoliti

(CNN) -- Robert Barchi believed he had much more important business to deal with at Rutgers, and in many ways, he's probably right. He is overseeing a massive merger between the university and the state's medical schools, one that will shape higher education in New Jersey for generations.

But now there was an issue involving a videotape of his basketball coach. This was early December, just after Rutgers had received a much-celebrated invitation to the Big Ten Conference. The tape contained clips of Mike Rice throwing basketballs at his players, shoving them and cursing at them, and using a homophobic slur.

When it was given to ESPN months later, it dominated the airwaves for a week and sparked a scandal that rocked the Rutgers athletic department and, for many alums, disgraced the school.

The tape was toxic. The tape overshadowed everything Barchi was trying to accomplish on the New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus. But he never watched that tape until after it aired.

Steve Politi
Steve Politi

"It was a revelation," Barchi said a few weeks later, "that the intensity of the response, both within the community, within the state and nationally on this very important and very serious issue could totally swamp out all of the other issues we're trying to deal with and color everything else we're doing."

Revelation isn't the right word. Reality is. Barchi isn't the first university president -- and he won't be the last -- to learn how a scandal in college athletics can shape his administration or, for some, end it entirely.

That's what happened at Penn State when Graham Spanier was forced to resign in November 2011 after his weak response to the scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.

Was new Rutgers athletics head abusive?
Former player: Hermann called us whores
Rutgers new hire faces claims of abuse
'SNL' pokes fun at Rutgers University

As another Big Ten school, Ohio State, dealt with an NCAA scandal involving rules violations with its longtime coach Jim Tressel, university President Gordon Gee was asked if he considered making a change in his football program. He famously responded, "I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me," a one-liner he came to regret when Tressel was later forced to resign.

What happened at Rutgers was nowhere close to those levels. Still, it should serve as a reminder to all college presidents that sports, while a small part of the university mission as a whole, are a huge factor in shaping the public image of a school and dominate media attention.

Barchi went from a mostly anonymous administrator, an acclaimed neuroscientist who became the 20th president at Rutgers during an important time in its history, to an embattled leader listening to calls for his dismissal from sports columnists, politicians and faculty.

That, he admitted, was frustrating.

"I guess I learned that this is one area that I have to be involved with process right from the beginning," he said, "that I have to understand that the processes are in place and being followed from the beginning and not assume that they're in place, and I have to be fully sensitive to the multiplier and how easily the game knob gets turned up on this, and spillover on everything else we're trying to do."

It was a lesson he kept learning. Barchi fired Rice and forced out athletic director Tim Pernetti. He promised a thorough background check on his choices to replace both men but then was further embarrassed when the website Deadspin.com uncovered that new basketball coach Eddie Jordan did not have a degree from the university, as his official bio claimed.

That was small potatoes in comparison to the story that broke involving his new athletic director. Julie Hermann had promised a "new day" when she was hired in April, vowing that "there's no one that doesn't agree about how we treat young people with respect and dignity and build trust" at Rutgers.

But she had, herself, been an abusive coach at Tennessee, according to a dozen former players interviewed by The Star-Ledger, accused of many of same things that got Rice fired. Hermann countered that, while she was a "super intense" coach, she was never abusive.

Then, two days later, The New York Times first reported that Hermann was at the center of a sex discrimination suit at Louisville, where she worked for 16 years as a senior administrator. A jury initially awarded $300,000 to an assistant track coach in the case, but a Kentucky appeals court later overturned the verdict. Barchi received a vote of confidence from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who declared that hiring Hermann was "not my call" and that he was "confident in President Barchi's judgment" on his weekly radio show.

But how could Rutgers hire anyone with a questionable coaching background after the Rice debacle? And how did the university fail to contact any of these former players through what was supposed to be a thorough vetting process?

The story again painted Rutgers as a laughingstock. The headline on ESPN.com late Tuesday declared, "Rutgers back to being a punchline," while SI.com wondered, "Does Rutgers even know how to run an athletic department?"

The real question: How did Barchi fail to understand the reach of a college athletics scandal? The university president, like many before him on other campuses, found out the hard way.

"I regret that I did not ask to see this video," Barchi said when the Rice scandal broke. The satellite trucks were lined up in front of his office, and much to his chagrin, nobody wanted to talk about that historic merger with the medical schools.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Politi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT