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Rutgers Crisis Illustrates Leadership Conundrum in Sports

The firing of Mike Rice as head men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University last week, and the leadership fallout that ensued, illustrates a challenge that many athletic departments seem hard-pressed to solve: Who’s in charge of sports?

In the case of Rutgers, the university appeared to have too many cooks in the kitchen, which partly explains its failure to fire Mr. Rice for repeatedly physically and verbally abusing players. The broader failure here is that few programs foster an environment in which athletic directors have the authority to act.

Tim Pernetti, who resigned as the university’s athletic director on Friday, said he wanted to fire the coach last year after viewing a video of him kicking, shoving, and screaming at players. Instead, he said, a bunch of lawyers and human-resources people got involved, the university commissioned an independent report, and Mr. Rice was allowed to stay.

It’s unclear who made the call to keep the coach around. In a statement, Mr. Pernetti put it on the group: “The consensus,” he said, “was that university policy would not justify dismissal.”

In a news conference on Friday, Robert L. Barchi, the Rutgers president, said the breakdown was a “failure of process.” But he ultimately pointed his finger at Mr. Pernetti, who he said could have been more forceful in pushing to get rid of the coach. On Monday, Dr. Barchi announced the university would hire an independent investigator to review the handling of the case.

Mr. Rice’s contract spells out the athletic director’s responsibility to evaluate behavior that, in his judgment, could bring shame or disgrace to the university.

But insiders say there’s often a big difference between having the responsibility to act and being given the authority to do so.

“You may have the title but not the power,” one top administrator with ties to Rutgers told me this past weekend. “In many places, there’s a failure of alignment between responsibility and authority.”

Before any of this, the Big Ten Conference had taken a lead role in wrestling with some of those issues. Last summer the league circulated among its presidents and chancellors a discussion document that proposed requiring member universities to put more power in the hands of campus presidents and athletic directors. (Rutgers did not announce it was joining the Big Ten until November.)

The Big Ten document suggested that member universities specify who is making decisions, and said institutions should establish reporting systems to help assure that those people were actually making the decisions. The document, which is no longer under discussion, also proposed having the league office oversee regular audits of universities to identify any weaknesses in those systems.

The Big Ten deserves credit for trying to tackle an issue that few others have touched. But in the messy world of shared governance, it’s hard to imagine any policy or procedure adequately insulating an athletic director when a powerful coach wants his way.

At some point, it’s on leaders to act—and they must do so based on a higher authority, says Peter Roby, the athletic director at Northeastern University, who oversees an NCAA leadership-development program for aspiring ADs.

Every year he asks a dozen or so prospective athletic directors the same question: Why do you want to lead in sport?

While many say their main focus is to help educate and serve students, Mr. Roby says, the actions of some leaders reflect a different set of priorities.

And for many of those leaders, their values don’t get sorted out until they face a crisis.

“That’s when we get to see whether you have values of convenience or values of conviction,” Mr. Roby says. “If people don’t have the right values, they’re going to keep blinking in the face of stress.”

With the pressure on programs to win, it’s not easy to take a stand on principle. But until more decision makers fight for the right things, Mr. Roby says, college sports is likely to keep seeing this kind of fallout.

“At the end of the day you have to ask yourself, What business are we in?” he says. “If you’re about educating students, you need to make different choices.”

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