TRENTON – Pressure is mounting among New Jersey lawmakers and other state officials for Rutgers to immediately fire its head men’s basketball coach and explain why it took so long for his controversial coaching style to come to light.
Gov. Chris Christie and Statehouse lawmakers were swift in their condemnation this week over coach Mike Rice’s practice of kicking and shoving his players, throwing basketballs at their heads and screaming profanities – including anti-gay slurs – at them.
News broke of Rice’s coaching style after ESPN aired video of Rice berating his players during practice. The sport’s network reported Rutgers is expected to make a decision on whether to retain Rice as coach sometime today.
Rice was suspended for three games without pay and fined $50,000 after Rutgers’ athletic director was reportedly first made aware of the videos in December.
ESPN’s airing of segments of the video caused immediate backlash.
“Governor Christie saw the video today for the first time and he is obviously deeply disturbed by the conduct displayed and strongly condemns this behavior,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in a statement Tuesday evening.
“It’s not the type of leadership we should be showing our young people and clearly there are questions about this behavior that need to be answered by the leaders at Rutgers University,” he said.
Within hours, Statehouse lawmakers issued statements calling for Rice’s immediate dismissal, as well as a full investigation as to why it took so long for action from the university.
“Coach Rice’s behavior was unacceptable and beyond common decency. Rutgers needs to do more than just a suspension: He should be fired immediately,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“Not only was his behavior disgusting and his use of slurs insulting, but why is it that we are only finding out the facts now, months after this occurred?” Sweeney asked. “Clearly this is someone who should not be teaching young people. Rutgers needs to explain why this was kept essentially secret and they need to remove this man now.”
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver echoed similar comments.
“Mike Rice should no longer be employed by Rutgers University. He must go. Meanwhile, the decision not to dismiss him last year needs a complete and thorough review,” she said. “The conduct of Mike Rice is unacceptable not only at our state university, but in all circumstances. It is offensive and unbecoming of our state.”
The video spurred similar reactions from state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
“Everyone in New Jersey is deeply offended by Mike Rice’s inexcusable actions against student athletes who he is highly paid to mold and shape,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.
“In addition to being tasked with winning basketball games, Mr. Rice is paid by the public to foster the growth of student athletes and the overall success of New Jersey’s flagship university. If there is no compelling reason why Mr. Rice was allowed to continue coaching young people, then he should be immediately fired,” he said.
Rice’s use of homophobic slurs to attack students also prompted Garden State Equality to issue a statement saying an apology and fine “do not go nearly far enough,” said the group’s executive director, Troy Stevenson.
“The pattern of behavior in this video is deplorable, inexcusable, in direct violation of the state’s anti-bullying laws, and it’s indefensible that Rutgers hasn’t fired Coach Rice as a result,” Stevenson said. “Further, why did the university wait months to disclose this disturbing footage?”