There is a game that my father and other New Jersey people of his generation play that I call "Tales of Jersey." I've written about it before, and Jersey people will be familiar with it, if maybe know it by different names. It goes like this: One Jersey person names a ridiculous, embarrassing, outlandish and overstated instance of institutional clownishness or corruption that he or she has witnessed firsthand in Jersey; the other party responds in kind. There are no real winners, although both participants at least get to enjoy the fact that they -- unlike the protagonists of most of these stories -- have not been indicted, and so are free to re-purpose the state's various endemic awfulnesses as a sort of comic performance. My mayor did such-and-such and long story short an elementary school wound up on a flood-prone superfund site. Yeah, well my grandfather was in a union that got strong-armed by Frank "Frankie Three Cufflinks" Squillardi in some colorful way or other. It ends when the two sides are drunk enough, or exhausted, or when the joke of New Jersey -- a beautiful state full of proud, smart people and delicious things to eat -- stops being funny. So results may vary.
But this is a thing we do, and not just people from New Jersey. This is where comedy comes from, not just in the basic laughing-to-keep-from-crying dimension but in the way it repurposes something painful -- the feeling, not at all unique to New Jersey, of being governed by people less principled or decent or even basically competent than you -- into not just something less painful, but fully in the joke-teller's command. It takes back a sort of control: The only way our awful elite leaves power is in handcuffs and a storm of flashbulbs, but we at least get to craft the punchline. The Jersey jokes that Jersey people tell themselves and others are not necessarily funnier, because there is only so much that can be done with incompetent bosses and the bulls--- world they make, but they're at least more complicated, and come from a hungrier, angrier, more truthful place.
So, after another awful week for Rutgers University's athletic department, that's something to look forward to, maybe, or begin to feel OK about. Someday, the brutal farce at Rutgers may well become something everyone can joke about, Jerseyfolk and all the rest. It will be, if it ever gets to its punchline, be a decent joke. Oh man, we'll say, remember that summer before Rutgers joined the Big Ten, when they did every possible thing wrong in the wrongest and most humiliating and self-defeating possible way? And we'll laugh, maybe, or sort of laugh, and we'll ask, less urgently than we're asking it now: What the hell was all that about?
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The painful part is how long it has taken to get to the laughter and forgetting. Greg Schiano, a scowling, hyperactively aggro gym teacher type, succeeded in rebuilding a Rutgers football program that had long been an unusually unpleasant joke -- not just a lousy and forgotten team, but one run by creepy defectives who didn't manage to graduate much more than half of their players. Schiano, who is currently screaming at the unlucky Tampa Bay Buccaneers who must now call him "coach" during OTA's, improved the team's graduation rates, and got the team to a few bowl games. It cost a lot of money, but it worked: The team is now no longer quite so depressing, although that will likely change when Rutgers joins the Big Ten.
And far be it from me or anyone else to diminish the significance of some Pinstripe Bowl wins, but it seems reasonable to wonder whether all that was worth the $28 million deficit that the school's athletic department ran last year. Only one Division I school -- it was UNLV, which is not the model that Rutgers had when it set out to spend its way to prominence -- laid out more to subsidize money-losing sports programs. Successful teams in big-time sports do tend to redound to schools' benefits in some ways, as Patrick Hruby has written. Of course, as Patrick Hruby has also written, there are a thousand different poisonous things -- all of which braid together into one familiar type of cultural rot -- that can and generally do afflict universities dedicated to a value-neutral pursuit of winning, profitable sports teams.
The question all this raises is whether it's worth it, whether a bigger, louder profile is worth the compromises required to win it, whether the pursuit of those grand ambitions is likely to deliver anything but the same cruel Gatsby-ish reminder of such starry, overdetermined hubris' usual reward. There are any number of doofy sports-business types keen to stick a suspiciously specific dollar value on a NCAA tournament or bowl game appearance, but it's harder to quantify the subtler damage done in pursuit of those notional brand benefits and little fleeting publicity pops. It's a tough question and a lot to consider, even when it's done right.
The Tales of Jersey part of the Rutgers story is that Rutgers decided to sell out -- in both senses, in all possible senses -- in pursuit of that goal, and then managed to screw virtually everything up. They got serious and hired a tough, win-first basketball coach who'd built a program at a small school, only to discover that he was a rage-addicted sociopath who also wasn't all that good a basketball coach … and then saw their brand-minded, ex-TV exec athletic director sit on the discovery until it got too embarrassing. They fired both, then hired a well-qualified woman to oversee the cleansing of the athletic department, and then discovered -- or, anyway, were publicly re-reminded --that she was a gender-flipped but otherwise strikingly similar creepo authoritarian bully to the coach they dumped. It's tempting to end a joke this convoluted and ugly with "… The Aristocrats." But it's a different type of joke than that.
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What we want from our institutions, first and most fundamentally, is some sense of accountability. What's wrong with Rutgers -- what led to the decision to compromise so much about what makes the school valuable in pursuit of the things these various defective hires were supposed to deliver -- is not going to be fixed by firing university president Robert Barchi or new AD Julie Hermann. It wouldn't necessarily hurt to do either, probably, but you don't need to be a veteran of New Jersey's civic life to know that the people -- awful as they can be and often are -- are not necessarily the problem, at least relative to the self-perpetuating cultures that incent and incubate and insulate them.
So the institution is a mess, value-less and wholly incapable of getting out of its own way, craven but not even especially good at being craven. This is nothing new, in New Jersey or elsewhere under the sun. Firing some powerful people, however much they might deserve firing, is not necessarily going to fix that. The thing that keeps Jersey's institutions so rotten and cynical is not that Jersey's people are worse than other states', because of course they aren't, but that the institutions themselves are built on an implicitly accepted deceit and greed and a whole host of sad, cynical assumptions -- foremost among them being that the way it has always been is the way it will and must always be.
The whole dreary joke at Rutgers is based on a series of similarly slack assumptions, that big, winning, money-making sports teams are worth compromising and compromising again in order to get; that big-dollar television contracts and a general grasping upward mobility are obviously good in themselves and must be pursued. And underneath all that, here and in every other Tale of Jersey, is something truly despicable and tough to laugh at: the willingness to ignore basic and obvious human consequences in favor of dim selfishness and illusory material gain. It's a joke, the whole dumb long-running thing, but it's not really all that funny.