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Rutgers tries wiggling past turmoil

 
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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.

Tim Pernetti didn’t have a chance to speak for himself or defend his actions — or lack thereof — at Friday’s press conference announcing his resignation as athletic director at Rutgers University.

But if the intimations made in the embattled former AD’s letter of resignation are to be believed, Pernetti is simply being made the unwitting scapegoat for a much larger institutional failure surrounding the handling of former basketball coach Mike Rice’s treatment of players.

And, whether Pernetti’s claims are true or not, presenting them as factual is probably the best-case scenario for everyone involved in this hotly debated unraveling of the Scarlet Knights’ athletic program, which has dominated the news cycle in a way that Rutgers’ hoops team has never dreamed of doing with its play on the court.

In Pernetti’s letter, which Rutgers president Robert Barchi read in full during a contentious hourlong Q-and-A session that felt more like a cross-examination on a TV drama, the former Rutgers tight end claimed that his first instinct after seeing video of Rice verbally and physically abusing players on the practice court was to “fire him immediately,” but that others at the university intervened before such action could be taken.

"Rutgers decided to follow a process involving university lawyers, human resources professionals, and outside counsel," Pernetti wrote. "Following review of the independent investigative report, the consensus was that university policy would not justify dismissal. I have admitted my role in, and regret for, that decision, and wish that I had the opportunity to go back and override it for the sake of everyone involved."

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Pernetti’s defense of his own inaction may not be accurate — and it’s very possible that it isn’t — but that’s of little importance, of course. Because Barchi, himself, did nothing to dispute the assertion, seeming content to paint Pernetti as a chump and himself as remorseful that he didn’t do more to intervene. Essentially, Barchi allowed Pernetti to be a martyr so long as he would take the blame.

“Tim Pernetti is a sincere and honest man,” Barchi said. “He is a skilled athletic director with many strengths. … I believe he has always had the good of Rutgers and its student athletes in mind in every decision he has made, including his decision today. This mutual decision is in the best interest of Rutgers, and we will learn from this situation going forward.”

It also matters little how much Barchi really knew about Rice’s despicable behavior and when he was made aware of what was going on with his school’s athletic program.

Because, in making Pernetti the fall guy, Barchi absolved himself of any wrongdoing in the case — other than to say that he regretted lacking the power of hindsight when he elected not to watch the tape in November, when Eric Murdock, who was fired from the Rutgers basketball staff last summer, brought it to the university’s attention.

“This was a failure of process,” Barchi said. “I regret that I did not ask to see the video when Tim first told me of its existence, because I am certain this situation would have had a different outcome had I done so.”

And Barchi willingly did all this — pinning the oversight in the Rice case on Pernetti — with the backing of Ralph Izzo, the chair of the university board of governors, by his side, assuring Barchi that his job, which he has only held since September, is not in jeopardy. So Barchi wins in that he can move forward, with a cushy job, in the search for a new AD and basketball coach.

It’s not a perfect solution to the problem by any stretch, and it does little to explain how Rice could have possibly only received a three-game suspension and $50,000 fine in the first place for what was so obviously a fireable offense. It also doesn’t eliminate the potential effects of the pending lawsuit, which was filed by Murdock in state court Friday.

On the court, it doesn’t do a largely irrelevant Rutgers program any favors in recruiting going forward, either, and the images of Rice hitting and kicking players, throwing basketballs at them, and slinging homophobic slurs in their direction, won’t soon be forgotten.

But finally settling on who, exactly, was to blame — Rice, and then Pernetti, in short order — helps bring something like closure to the scandal, which has effectively overshadowed this weekend’s Final Four.

Friday’s press conference wasn’t a surprise, and it didn’t answer most of the questions people still have about the events of the past week. But it was a carefully crafted ploy that allowed everyone to walk away looking as good as possible in a situation where no one really looks all that great.

By firing the worst guy, letting the bad guy resign and walk away with his image somewhat intact and allowing the guy at the head of it all off scot-free, it gives the university an opportunity to move on and recover from the black eye its athletic program has sustained over the last week. And given the circumstances, that’s probably the best Pernetti, Barchi and the school could have hoped for.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at [email protected].

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