Friday, April 12, 2013

The firing of the basketball coach at Rutgers University: Who controls the narrative?

This past week Rutgers University fired its basketball coach, Mike Rice, and pressured its athletic director to resign. For our European colleagues, Rutgers is the major public university in the state of New Jersey. An assistant basketball coach for the university’s basketball team, Erick Murdock, unhappy over what he described as his dismissal ten months ago, created video footage of Coach Rice hitting players during practice and calling them “faggots” and “homos.” ESPN got hold of the video, most likely from Murdock’s lawyer, and the university, upon learning that ESPN was about to file a report, released the video to the public. The video created a public relations scandal leading to Rice’s firing and the athletic director’s resignation. Some faculty members asked that the University's president, Robert Barchi, resign. Readers interested in seeing an extract from the video can go to

The press focused on the video and the coach’s distasteful if not abusive behavior. But journalists paid little to attention to a report the university’s outside counsel wrote several months before the video’s release. ( The report, conveys a much more nuanced picture of Rice’s behavior and its meaning. In the popular press Murdock was a whistle blower who was fired after he complained about the Coach’s abusive behavior. But nothing could be farther from the truth. This gap sheds important light on the challenges we face in situating information in its appropriate context. In fact, this case suggests that the "information revolution" strips information from its context.  This is why executives can no longer control the public narrative about the institutions they lead. Their leadership is jeopardized.

Let’s consider four features of the popular narrative about Coach Rice’s behavior. My goal is to not defend or condemn his behavior. Instead, I want to show that when we consider the context of a seemingly straightforward narrative, -- a whistle blowing hero brings down a villain-- its simplicity and evident standing as a morality tale is undermined. We have to ask, “What is real?”  Below, I introduce each section of my analysis by first  italicizing the feature of the narrative I propose to examine.   

Feature 1: The video sequence shows a consistent pattern of abuse: The videos purportedly show that Coach Rice was consistently abusive to players during practice sessions. This conception is based on thirty minutes of an edited tape based on the tapes of over 50 practice sessions, or less that one half of one percent of the total practice time over Rice’s tenure. 18 minutes of the 30-minute clip highlight the coach’s course and offensive language. A few of the clips in the video are repeated and no clips show what precedes or comes after a particular moment, for example, the coach throwing a basketball at a player.

As the report notes, two assistant coaches and one associate head coach who viewed the 30 minute clip, “Pointed out that the scenes depicted on the DVD were out of context, that some of the scenes actually showed Coach Rice playfully kicking a player in the buttocks for doing something positive, and that the 25 DVDs (from which the video clip was created) represented a very small fraction of all of the practices and workouts held by Coach Rice since the Fall of 2010.” Moreover, as the report makes clear, all practices were open to the public. “Despite visits by hundreds of recruits, family members, outside coaches and others, none of those persons complained to the Athletic Director, that Coach Rice’s behavior in practice was improper.”

Murdock’s lawyer had obtained the footage of 50 practices from the university by filing a “freedom of information" claim. He edited them to produce a rhetorical or persuasive argument, rather than to compile an accurate record of the Coach’s behavior. The editing succeeded, since it creates the impression of a continuous barrage of abuse rather than widely separated incidents.  Journalists, who are typically skeptical, if not cynical, overlooked this commonplace use of photos and videos in an era of Photoshop and desktop editing software.

Feature 2: Eric Murdock was fired because he threatened to “blow the whistle” on Coach Rice’s behavior. Murdock was not in fact fired. Instead, the athletic director, Coach Rice’s boss, did not extend his contract. Coach Rice in fact was not authorized to fire anyone. The director closed out Murdock’s contract because he had failed to show up for work at a basketball summer camp one particular Friday. Murdock had asked Coach Rice for permission to take off on that day. Rice said no, and when Murdock failed to appear, Rice insisted that they meet the next Monday to discuss his absence. Murdock did not come to that Monday meeting and so the director let his contract lapse.

As the report states, “When interviewed, Eric Murdock (EM) stated that his firing’ was directly linked to EM leaving the Coach Rice camp without permission and that Coach Rice fired him immediately upon learning of EM’s unauthorized absence from the camp. Thus, (even) accepting EM’s version of the facts,” --(LH: he was not in fact fired)—“he was not fired for “whistle-blowing activity, but for his insubordination with respect to the Coach Rice camp.”

There was in fact no reason for Murdock to blow the whistle on Rice, since the athletic director had already warned Rice about being too harsh with certain players, and reprimanded him for losing his temper with a referee during a game. Rice took this feedback seriously since as the report goes on to note, the associate head coach, the athletic director, the school’s sports psychologist and Murdock himself, “Observed that Coach Rice’s conduct had improved when others advised him that his overly critical style was counterproductive for certain players.” It seems reasonable to conclude that the Murdock’s lawyer deployed the “whistle blowing” cultural trope for his client’s advantage. Indeed, the FBI is investigating whether or not Murdock can be charged with extortion since, as several news outlets reported, his lawyer sent Rutgers a letter requesting $950,00 to settle his employment grievance against Rutgers, else he file a lawsuit. The lawsuit was in fact filed in early April after Rutgers, as we noted above, released the video to the public in advance of ESPN’s report. 

Feature 3: Coach Rice verbally and physically abused his players. One question the report raises is whether or not Rice deployed his temper, insults and physicality out of rage, or purposefully, as a method of instruction. The distinction is important because if he was impelled by rage, he can be dangerous to others, while if he was insulting for a purpose, it suggests he can control his behavior. The report notes, “All of the players and coaches with whom we spoke also conveyed to us that they fully understood that the “chaos” created by Coach Rice in practice was not mean-spirited, but was designed to prepare the players to become more competitive and to remain calm when similar “chaos” would occur in their games. Indeed, newspaper accounts at the time reflected comments from Rutgers basketball players, stating their understanding of Coach Rice’s philosophy; that they cannot control everything that might happen during a basketball game, but they can control their response to those events.”

There is in fact a strong cultural trope about demanding teachers in many fields who are harsh with students in the service of their learning. In college sports, such wildly successful bullies as Woody Hayes, who coached football for Ohio State University, and Bob Knight, who coached basketball at Indiana University, were lionized before they were fired for their abusive behavior. I am not defending such behavior, but simply noting that there is a cultural context particularly, but not only within sports, that prizes teachers whose intensity is the basis for their competitiveness but can also may in some cases trigger their abusiveness.

In fact, many students admire tough college teachers. A business school dean cites a passage wherein a student at the Harvard Business School writes admiringly of a teacher named Cooperman;

“This guy was a true hard- liner. In his class, chip shots (lazy comments) would be taboo, and absences the kiss of death. He made this second policy unmistakably clear on the first day of class…It was quickly apparent that any vapid observation in Cooperman’s class invited disaster. Our other professors had tended to let most comments pass with a nod or a brief editorial aside. Cooperman wasn’t like this. He was more likely to interrogate students after they made a point, pushing their analysis further, and gauging how deep their understanding of the case went. His style bordered on confrontation, and intimidated a number of people. . ‘This,’ I said to anyone who’d put up with my sermonizing, ‘is how classes here were meant to be taught!’” (

The belief that harshness is potentially educative, (for adults only, not for children who thrive on love), is based on the plausible idea that  young adults are preparing for a competitive and unforgiving environment in which neither their friends nor their enemies will excuse lapses or incompetence. In this sense the teacher is a stand-in for the hostility the student will face in the future and must learn to cope with. Looked at psychologically, we can say that the coach or teacher represents and personalizes the indifference the student must ultimately contend with. The psychoanalytically inclined reader will recognize this as the teacher’s “superego” functioning. There is of course room for debate on this issue, and certainly coaches and teachers may go overboard, humiliating their students. Indeed, one study of 206 college athletes in the US found that 22% of respondents reportedly experienced coaching techniques that were verbally or mentally abusive ( Psychology of Sport and Exercise 12 (2011) 213-221). But the popular rendition of the Coach Rice story precludes considering these complexities.

Feature 4: Coach Rice’s homophobic comments demeaned gays, much as calling African Americans “niggers” or Jews “kikes” would. In the current context, when there is so much contention in the U.S. about gay rights, particularly their right to state-recognized marriage, the use of terms like “homo” and “fagot” feels very offensive and tone deaf. Yet even here on an issue that seems so black and white, there is a cultural context to consider.

In an ethnographic study of adolescent culture in a U.S. high school, “Hey Dude you’re a Fag,” the author C.J. Pascoe found that when boys used the word “Fag” they were policing one another’s masculinity, not insulting gays. When Pascoe interviewed these boys many noted that they would never call a gay person a “fag,” nor would they ever insult a lesbian with foul language. (p. 57) They were focusing on masculinity not sexual orientation. One hypothesis is that Coach Rice was reproducing this playground or adolescent culture hoping to stimulate his players’ sense of their masculinity and their willingness to defend it.

This understanding does not excuse Rice’s tone-deaf stance and his insensitivity to his own players’ feelings about the use of such terms. Some may have been more adult than he was, and did not need to re-experience a high school gym setting in college.

Moreover, in September of 2010 a Rutgers gay freshman committed suicide. His roommate secretly recorded a sexual encounter he had in their dorm room and then embarrassed him by posting the video on the Internet This was a traumatic event for the institution and of course a tragedy for the freshman’s family.

This suggests that just as journalists and others did not take account of the cultural context that shaped Rice’s behavior, Rice did not take account of the institutional context that certainly impinged on his own choices and freedom of action. Similarly, even though the outside counsel’s report was thorough and level headed, we could say that its authors’ sense of context was narrowed by their preoccupation with the narrow legal question of whether or not Murdock had been the victim of a “hostile work environment.” If he was not, his grievance was illegitimate and Rutgers owed him nothing. But this brief turned out to be too narrow. The report’s authors did not see the larger context, the institution’s sensitivity to gay rights that reshaped the meaning of the Coach’s actions. This is why they so confidently and summarily dismissed Murdock’s claims without forewarning their clients about possible trouble ahead.  

Moreover, Robert Barchi, the university’s president was pilloried when he admitted to not viewing the video after his subordinates first brought it to his attention. Yet in his context -- he was dealing with a very complicated and politicized merger of several medical-school campuses in the state -- the Rice affair was a distraction, best managed by his subordinates. Yet it led faculty members and others to call for his resignation. The state’s governor, who was depending on Barchi to implement the merger, called Rice an “animal,” a verbal concession to popular anger, which in turn allowed him to protect the president.

The story I am telling here is a story of contexts that go missing, draining meaning everywhere. Moreover, we lose meaning more readily when an issue’s “escape velocity” is high; for example, as is the case here, a video goes ‘viral,” and its subject is sensitive.

Futurists once presumed that the information revolution would give rise to a “systems view” of experience. This meant that we would have access to the resources and technologies we needed to consider all experience in context. But as the case of the viral video suggests, the information revolution, enables people to create “mash-ups” --cultural products that integrate information from disparate and often disconnected sources. Think of them as technological collages. The resulting product creates its own context, since the sources of information disappear from view. This means that people are able to use information to project or tap into fantasies, in this case, the fantasy of the oppressed whistle blower calling abusive authorities to account.

Perhaps we have entered the age of the “simulacrum,” in which, as the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard notes, the copy or the image becomes the “real,” or as he terms it, the “hyperreal.” This is one reason why leaders must be so attuned to the stories people tell about their institutions. Yet as the Rutgers case suggest, it is difficult if not impossible to anticipate what these stories might be. Traditional public relations practice, which rests on the idea that institutions can control these narratives, is in this sense outmoded. This is one reason why leaders today focus more on crisis management and organizational resilience than on “controlling the message.”

There is little doubt that the new information and communication technologies help us hold institutions accountable. Consider how advocates held manufacturers accountable for sweatshop conditions in their suppliers’ factories. Or, how dissidents in undemocratic societies use twitter and mobile phones to coordinate their political activities. But these same technologies blur the distinction between what is real and what is fantasized. They rob information of its context and make the search for truth more difficult and more perilous.