Rutgers' Blame Game Leads to Scapegoats, Firings, Lessons Learned - In House
In House - The FindLaw Corporate Counsel Blog

Rutgers' Blame Game Leads to Scapegoats, Firings, Lessons Learned

In what universe does Mike Rice's conduct not warrant a full investigation and swift and severe sanctions? Only in New Jersey, apparently, and some of those responsible for the wrist-slapping turned PR nightmare are getting the axe. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the university has learned a lesson in governance from this mess.

Mike Rice flung basketballs at players, berated them, physically struck them, and hurled homophobic insults constantly. His conduct only came to light after a disgruntled former employee, who is suing under a state whistleblower statute, leaked the tape to ESPN. Internally, however, Rutgers University was well-aware of the abuse - and responded with a short suspension and a fine.

Rice is out. The athletic director, Tim Pernetti, is out. Even the interim general counsel, who had been with Rutgers since 1984 is out, reports Bloomberg, though the university did take the time out to blame outside counsel first.

According to Professional Liability Matters, Board of Governors Chairman Ralph Izzo stated, "We pay dearly for good advice, and I'm not sure we got good advice," referencing the work of Connell Foley of Roseland, New Jersey, who reportedly advised the University that Rice's conduct was insufficient to fire him for cause.

Inside counsel blames outside counsel. Athletic director investigates "thoroughly" and gives a minor suspension. What about the Board of Governors? What about the University President, Dr. Robert Barchi, who labeled the scandal "a failure of process"?

He's right. The disgruntled former employee, Erik Murdock, told ESPN that he was fired for complaining about Rice's conduct, especially his verbal abuse towards children at a basketball clinic. In November of last year, he was interviewed by Pernetti and unnamed university officials. Pernetti got the axe because of the insufficiency of Rice's punishment - but what about those other officials? And was the Board really unaware of the extent of Rice's abusive conduct?

From a pragmatic standpoint, it is common sense that, should Rice's behavior become public, the University would be greatly embarrassed. Yet, the Board did nothing, whether it be due to a cover-up from below, bad advice from outside counsel, or more likely, willful ignorance.

The lessons from this incident should be common sense. Get as much information, and evidence, as possible (there was a video of the abuse, after all). Have a reporting system in place for employees to report this type of conduct, and for in house counsel to report the legal concerns. If such a system does exist, evaluate its sufficiency.

Willful ignorance and post-hoc scapegoating of subordinate employees is insufficient.

And if you're wondering what will become of Mike Rice, the foul-mouthed homophobic coach, take heart. He's now coaching (and allegedly verbally abusing) a girls' AAU team, reports Deadspin.

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