by Steve Adubato, PhD
As a Rutgers grad and as someone who has taught many communication courses there, I am embarrassed and appalled at the way the Rutgers University leadership team has mishandled the Mike Rice video “fiasco.” This has become the newest case study for how NOT to handle a crisis.
It’s hard to imagine an institution getting it so wrong on the communication, media and, most importantly, the leadership front. The scandalous videotape of then Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice was brought to then athletic director Tim Pernetti back in November 2012. Apparently, Pernetti did not insist that Rutgers president Robert Barchi see the videotape himself. Instead, outside legal counsel was brought in and apparently advised university officials that they did not have enough cause to fire Rice at the time based on the videotape evidence. Huh?
Amazingly, a decision was made to suspend Rice for only three games and fine him $50,000. (Interestingly, Rice received a $100,000 bonus by remaining head coach for the full basketball season, which puts the fine in a very different light.) At the time, and for several months thereafter, Pernetti called Rice’s egregious abuse of Rutgers basketball players his “first offense”, even though the videotape that was released by ESPN was a compilation of multiple incidents during Rutgers practices from 2010 to 2012.
What’s worse is that while Rutgers officials knew such a videotape existed and was likely to become public, they opted never to proactively disclose or communicate what was on it, but rather chose to communicate in general Rice’s violation when suspending and fining him. Ultimately, once the tape became public, there was a massive media and public uproar. Pernetti’s initial communication was that the penalties were appropriate for Rice’s infractions and that the decision was jointly made by him and president Barchi. The confusion, however, was whether the president actually viewed the videotape.
Yet, on Thursday, The Star-Ledger front page headline made it crystal clear—“RU President Never Asked to See Video.” In fact, the president opted to only look at the videotape AFTER the ESPN story ran. This makes no sense. Why did RU officials opt for several months not to release the videotape? By waiting, Rutgers looks weak, defensive and, in the eyes of some, engaged in a potential cover-up—always a terrible crisis communication strategy. Who knows if that is the case, but in this arena, perception is pretty much all that matters, and the perception for many is that Rutgers was looking to sweep this under the rug.
On Friday, athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned, calling his continued tenure as athletic director “no longer sustainable for the university” and partially blaming “university policy” for the situation. While this story continues to evolve, consider some Sunday morning quarterbacking that might have helped the Rutgers leadership team better handle this fiasco:
--On November 26, as soon as the Rice tape was presented to Pernetti, he should have brought it directly to the president and collectively they should have decided to dismiss Coach Rice for obvious reasons (No investigation needed here.) and then voluntarily release the videotape at a press conference.
--After releasing the tape, university officials should have communicated that Rutgers had a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to athletic coaches, administrators or faculty regarding homophobic comments, physical violence, or the kind of behavior that coach Rice continually engaged in on tape.
--RU officials should have gathered every basketball player and his family for a closed door meeting in which the university officially apologized for Rice’s behavior, making it clear that it never should have happened and nothing like it would ever happen again.
--As for engaging legal counsel, such advice needed to be balanced against the obvious reputational damage that would occur by doing anything other than firing coach Rice immediately on November 26.
Once it was clear that Mike Rice’s outrageous behavior was caught on tape, nothing good would come of it. However, by handling it the way they did, the RU leadership only ensured through their communication—or lack thereof—that the outcome would be much worse.