College sports have yet to ascend to a state of pure, hypocritically ironic -- or ironically hypocritical, take your pick -- energy. This is not for a lack of trying. Before a National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament game last week in the nation's capital, association president Mark Emmert appeared on the Verizon Center Jumbotron. He was sitting next to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He was booed. Loudly and enthusiastically. So loudly, in fact, that the gist of his videotaped message, a public service announcement, went mostly unheard.
If you see something, say something.
The members of the Rutgers University men's basketball team saw something: former coach Mike Rice throwing basketballs at their heads; shoving, kicking and grabbing them; screaming obscenities and homophobic slurs; and generally acting less like a public educator than a man auditioning for a starring role in a reality TV show centered around incorrigible toddlers. The players said nothing. Rice's assistant coaches -- another fine group of public educators -- said nothing, too. Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti saw video of Rice's conduct and said as little as possible. University president Robert Barchi reportedly knew the video existed but never asked to see it, the better to say, well, nothing. Former Rutgers director of player development Eric Murdock said something, giving the video to ESPN, but only after he was let go by the school -- a move, his lawyer alleges, that happened because Murdock said something about Rice's conduct to his superiors. As of Wednesday, according to a report on the Daily Beast, Rutgers athletes in other sports were specifically being instructed to say nothing, even though the video already had been made public and resulted in Rice's termination.
None of this should be surprising.
If you see something, say nothing. Keep your head down. Don't derail the gravy train. Protect the status quo. Above all, defer to power and cover your a--. These are the real, rubber-meets-the-road values of our college sports system, the same values shared by corrupt, exploitative and entrenched regimes everywhere, the values never mentioned in frothy NCAA mission statements and coach-penned, pablum-packed Win At The Games Of Business And Life self-help success manuals. A code of silence. A code of silence forever left unwritten and unspoken, because really, if you have to spell it out, you've already messed up. Omertà doesn't work like the Bill of Rights, big bright rules on a big piece of paper. It works silently, in the shadows, through fear and intimidation, bullying and retribution, threats implied and examples made. Why did Rice's players and assistant coaches keep their mouths shut? Why did Pernetti say so little? Why did Murdock wait so long to come forward?
Because college sports whistleblowers get blown up. Snitches get stitches.
Once upon a time, a college basketball coach did a very bad thing. His name was Dave Bliss. He worked at Baylor. One of his players, Patrick Dennehy, had been murdered in the summer of 2003; one of his other players, Carlton Dotson, was charged with the crime. Bliss had personally been making Dennehy's tuition payments, a violation of NCAA rules. He panicked. He told his assistant coaches and players to tell investigators and the press that Dennehy had been dealing drugs.
Abar Rouse was one of those assistants, just 27 years old, on the job for only a few months. He didn't want to lie. He thought Bliss was crazy, that he would come to his senses. He told Bliss as much; according to Rouse, Bliss responded by asking him if he wanted to be fired. Rouse surreptitiously audiotaped his subsequent meetings with Bliss, in part to protect himself, in part because he felt a duty to the truth and to the slain Dennehy's memory. When the tapes were made public, scandal engulfed the school. Bliss already had resigned. A Baylor graduate, Rouse thought he was doing the right thing by his alma mater. He was let go, asked to drop off his basketball office keys. On an ESPN broadcast, he was condemned by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, then-Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson -- Kelvin Sampson! -- and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"If one of my assistants would tape every one of my conversations with me not knowing it," Krzyzewski reportedly said, "there's no way he would be on my staff."
Over the next decade, Rouse worked the night shift at an airplane parts factory. He worked at a women's prison. He worked exactly one basketball job, an $8,000-a-year graduate assistant gig at Division II Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. He reportedly had been blackballed. Meanwhile, Krzysewski co-authored a book called "Beyond Basketball: Coach K's Keywords for Success." He put his name on a Duke University Business School center for -- ahem -- leadership and ethics. He taped an American Express commercial in which he called himself "a leader who happens to coach basketball" and proclaimed that his players leave Duke armed not just with dribbles and jump shots, but also "armed for life."
Question is, what kind of life -- and what kind of arming -- are we talking about?
Too often, this is the pattern in college sports: speak uncomfortable truth to power and end up disappeared; stay quiet and be richly rewarded. In 2001, then-Penn State graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary saw convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky standing behind a prepubescent boy in a campus shower and heard "skin-on-skin smacking sound." He told his father, coach Joe Paterno and university administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz about the incident. He did not tell police. He spent the next 10 years getting promoted. In 2003, by contrast, ESPN.com's Tom Farrey profiled a group of college sports whistleblowers. Jan Kemp, who exposed academic fraud within the University of Georgia football program, was demoted and dismissed before ultimately being reinstated after winning a lawsuit against the school. Linda Bensel-Meyers, who did the same at the University of Tennessee, was stripped of her administrative duties and relocated to a basement office. At the University of Minnesota, tutor and athletic department secretary Jan Gangelhoff confessed that she was writing papers for men's basketball players; she lost friends, jobs and 68 pounds over a two-year span.
According to former University of Massachusetts guard Rigo Nunez, college basketball players from a number of schools planned to stage a sit-down during the opening round of the 1995 NCAA tournament, the better to protest what they felt was an economically exploitative amateur system. The demonstration never happened. The players got cold feet. They were afraid of being blackballed. I've reached out to a number of the players likely involved. Even now, none want to talk. It's hard to blame them. Most are still involved with high school and college basketball. They're still afraid of being blackballed. The college sports code of silence is powerful. It can arm you for life. When then-CNN/Sports Illustrated producer Robert Abbott reached out to former Indiana University guard Neil Reed to confirm eyewitness accounts that he had been choked during practice by then-coach Bob Knight, it took a year of late-night phone calls to convince Reed to go public with his story -- and Reed had left Indiana and was living in Australia at the time.
(Recall, too, that Indiana mostly dismissed CNNSI's original report, and only fired Knight after: a) the network aired a tape of the incident; b) Knight grabbed an antagonistic student on campus. Sound familiar?)
According to ESPN.com's Don Van Natta, Murdock is preparing for a life without basketball; friends have told him he will never coach again. Is that the sort of lesson we want college sports to teach? Former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis had a famous saying: Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Therapists have a saying, too: You're only as sick as your secrets. The irony of college sports' self-protective speak-no-evil culture is that it ultimately protects nothing. The truth has a way of getting out, particularly in the digital age, and in hiding and dissembling and covering things up, troubled individuals and institutions are only setting themselves up for harder falls. Penn State went down. Knight went down. Georgia, Tennessee and Minnesota went down. Rice went down, and both his athletic director and school president may be next. Somebody always sees something; sooner or later, somebody says something, too. Maybe men-molding campus coaches and their bureaucratic superiors ought to teach that from the start, as opposed to slavish, get-along-to-go-along deference; perhaps they could even set an example that might doesn't make right and that some things are more important than tribal loyalty and hierarchical self-preservation.
Call me crazy, but I've always felt that college is supposed to be a place where students learn to question authority and think for themselves.
Then again, what do I know? I'm not a college sports administrator, and certainly not one who makes $1.6 million a year. Not like an administrator who once was the chancellor at the University of Connecticut, where he supervised a massive construction project that later devolved into scandal and more than $100 million in losses. An administrator who according to a subsequent investigation knew about the problems with the project, but failed to disclose them to the school's board of trustees or the state legislature.
The administrator in question? Mark Emmert. He saw something. He said nothing. He fits right in.