Rutgers Basketball: Scandal, Public Outrage and the Power of Media

Paul MuellerSenior Analyst IApril 6, 2013

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - APRIL 05: Rutgers University President Robert L Barchi addresses the media during a press conference at Rutgers University announcing the resignation of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti on April 5, 2013 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Pernetti resigned after the firing of the basketball coach Mike Rice for abusive conduct toward players.  (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)
Andy Marlin/Getty Images

Rutgers. Penn State. Ohio State. Manti Te’o. Baylor. From the appalling and unacceptable to the downright strange and “what was he thinking?”, we all too often find ourselves discussing sports, particularly at the college level, for all the wrong reasons.

And much like those that came prior, the turmoil at Rutgers stemming from the now infamous video of head basketball coach Mike Rice kicking and throwing basketballs at players while berating them with homosexual slurs is a multi-layered story that has left Rice, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti and likely President Robert Barchi unemployed in its wake.

It’s a narrative that goes far beyond the basketball court. It’s a social, political, institutional narrative that tunnels to the foundation and structure of regulation and power in collegiate athletics.

And at the heart of this scandal lies the most common of denominators in any viral debate in recent memory.

We, the media.

With Penn State, it started with Sara Ganim. The Manti Te’o saga began with Deadspin. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered Watergate (this may appear, on its surface, as an orange among apples, but I assure you, at their core, they share the same journalistic principles).

With Rutgers, it started with ESPN’s Outside the Lines.

While you could argue that the Rice video would have gone viral without ESPN’s help—and you’d win that argument—a tip of the cap still must go to ESPN.

However, the media’s role in the breaking of and evolution of news is far different in 2013 than in the past.

There was a time not too long ago in which, as a consumer of news, the only way to have your opinion heard was to pick up your local newspaper in the morning, read the news that happened yesterday and send a letter to the editor in hopes of getting published. There was a time when the public would have to assemble in protest to have any impact on public policy or to shape public opinion.

Today, you barely have to lift a finger (literally). Those fingers of yours are weapons in today’s age of instant digital media, most effective when aimed at and fired upon that keyboard.

After ESPN’s OTL broadcast, Twitter was afire with calls for Rice’s head.

And the phone lines on radio shows across the nation and the talking heads from national news to the most local levels weren't far behind.

Twenty years ago, before the blogosphere exploded and before Twitter gave everyone an opinion, Rice may have kept his job. The masses wouldn’t know much about Rutgers’ basketball program at all. This one may have flown under the radar. But in today’s digital world, the evolution and molding of public opinion is now instantaneous—the escalation to viral, immediate.

It wasn’t the video that forced Pernetti’s resignation and it wasn’t the video that caused the Rutgers administration to push for him to step down. It was the public outrage that required someone to take the fall. It was the bloodthirsty tweeters and analysts who demanded Rice’s head, and after they got it, set their sights on Pernetti.

And now that Pernetti is out, the president is their next target.

As television broadcast President Barchi’s press conference Friday (which drew the ire of many), a colleague announced to me, “He’s toast.” Moments later, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas—a Duke Law School-educated (and practicing) lawyer, took to the airwaves and declared that there was no accountability at Rutgers, from the top down, and essentially called for Barchi’s resignation or the school to remove him as well.

And while Bilas’ comments, by definition, were not “journalism”, he’s a member of the media nonetheless, and he eloquently convinced me (enlightened me and even got me a little fired up in a way only Bilas could) that Barchi must go.

And that’s the power of the media. To move people to action. To educate. To help the public form its opinion.

We can applaud ESPN for its investigative reporting and breaking the news that made this video public, and we should, and at the same time we can point to Bilas and the like for pouring kerosene on the fire that engulfed Rice and Pernetti and is boiling below Barchi’s seat. (And in no way is this a condemnation of Bilas or other media outlets for their role—Bilas was accurate and astute in each of his observations and was fulfilling his role as an analyst—it’s simply an example of the climate of today’s media and how it can so easily sway the jury (read: the public) to force the judge’s hand in a given matter).

And it’s not limited to Bilas or to ESPN. We are all the media. We have the ability to break news via Twitter and Facebook and other social outlets like never before.

I have a six-month-old son with whom I’m going to have to have a conversation one day where we’ll discuss what I did when I first started working in journalism. I’ll tell him tales of newspaper stories I’ve written. “You used to work for a newspaper?” he’ll respond, as if I had just told him I served in the Civil War. I’ll tell him of beat reporting and using encyclopedias (the actual books) to round up historical information, and he’ll picture me riding to the library on horseback.

The times are no longer changing. They've changed.

Props to ESPN. Kudos to Deadspin. Thanks to Woodward and Bernstein and all others who remind us every now and again of what the societal function of journalism was, is and forever will be (I hope…). But the talking heads and pundits will take it from here.

Rice had to go, and the media and the public made sure it happened. Pernetti likely had to go as well, and away he went. Barchi probably should be next, and rest assured Twitter won’t rest until he’s out at Rutgers, and that inevitability is likely the best possible result for everyone involved.

And while it wouldn’t have been possible without the journalists who still do the real reporting—still follow up on leads, still turn over stones, still muckrake—if you sent out a tweet about Rutgers this week, you contributed too. If you shared the video on Facebook, you had your hand in Rice’s firing. If you commented on your favorite analyst’s column calling for action at Rutgers, you helped make it happen.

And that's not a bad thing. This new age of digital media that makes you, me and the person next to you a journalist (should you choose use the tools available to you) is what made the political processes of getting a guy like Jerry Sandusky off campus a speedy justice. And it's reared it's head in Piscataway, New Jersey, this time ensuring Rice's abuse of his players stopped and stopped right then and there.

This and other scandals that have rocked college athletics (let's not forget the Pac-12 official who was forced to resign after another recent controversy that flew under the radar thanks to Rutgers and Auburn taking center stage) will one day lead to a better system governing collegiate athletics (one can only hope).

And there's no telling what it will allow us to do next.