Rutgers Scandal Shows Employers Must Not Drop the Ball (Part 2): Whistleblowing

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The recent firing of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice, but only after a video surfaced of him physically hitting players and hurling repeated homophobic epithets at them, is a virtual primer of what NOT to do from a US employment law perspective.

In a series of posts this week, the XpertHR team is sharing employment lessons to learn from the scandal while also examining where the university fell short.

In Part I of this series, we examined bullying. In Part II, our focus turns to whistleblowing.

If you were a Rutgers administrator, what would you have done differently? Post your comments and let us know!

Rutgers Scandal (Part 2): Whistleblowing

The Rutgers scandal came to light as a result of video evidence submitted on DVD. So what can this situation tell us about whistleblowing? And what should an employer do when faced with a must-watch DVD?

In December 2012, Rutgers University appeared to be in an enviable position:  the Scarlet Knights boasted a promising head basketball coach and announced they would be joining the powerful Big 10 Conference.

Spring 2013 tells a much different story. And that story is airing on ESPN for the whole world to see. After a video surfaced on the network showing the men’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, assaulting and verbally abusing players, Rutgers found itself in the middle of a whistleblowing scandal that has already marred the reputation of the basketball program and university management.

Must-Watch DVD

Fortunately for ESPN and other major US television networks, everyone at Rutgers Basketball appears to be recording everyone else (which may or may not be lawful depending on state law). Evidently, there’s not a lot of trust in leadership in this organization.

Eric Murdock, the former director of basketball player development, claims in his recently filed lawsuit against Rutgers that he blew the whistle on Rice’s violent behavior and was then fired in retaliation. Although the motives of this whistleblower (like most whistleblowers) can be debated, the fact remains that Murdock did impart information to management regarding potentially harassing or illegal behavior on the part of an employee with access to students.

And what was management’s response?  Murdock was fired and Rice kept his job until ESPN showed the video four months later.  

Murdock provided an edited 30 minute DVD to Rutgers showing highlights (or lowlights?) of Rice’s behavior. Murdock threatened to release the video to news outlets unless his settlement offer was accepted. (Some are characterizing the settlement offer as an extortion attempt, but the video speaks for itself.)  

Director’s Cut

As a result of the video’s release and ensuing public outcry, a number of employees have exited Rutgers, some more voluntarily than others.Mike Rice was fired the day after the video aired on ESPN;

  • Tim Pernetti, the athletic director, was forced to resign due to his initial decision to suspend Rice for three games and fine him $50,000 rather than fire him;
  • Jimmy Martelli, assistant coach, resigned under pressure; and
  • John B. Wolf, former interim senior vice president and general counsel, resigned.

Embattled Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi remains at Rutgers as of this writing, but his role may soon be left on the cutting room floor.

Sequels

The video doesn’t tell the whole tale, of course.  In addition to Murdock’s wrongful termination lawsuit and Pernetti’s payout, sequels to Murdock’s lawsuit could be coming to a Rutgers campus near you, including:

  • Discrimination lawsuits filed by players who were subjected to different treatment and slurs;
  • Investigations initiated by federal enforcement agencies (e.g., the Department of Education or the Department of Justice) possibly resulting in significant penalties;
  • Penalties assessed by the NCAA; and
  • Loss of revenue caused by decreases in player recruitment and retention due to a disparaged basketball program.

Awards Season

So what should an employer do when faced with a must-watch DVD?

  • Set ground rules for air. Enforce internal work rules and policies, whether they address bullying, harassment, or media relations. Supervisors should be trained on how to timely and effectively respond to any employee complaint;
  • Manage the key players. Effectively manage an employee whistleblower. Even if a whistleblower has mixed motives, an employer should ensure that employee discipline is applied in a manner that is fair and equitable and that promotes overall ethics compliance; and
  • Ensure a winning formula – for minimizing employer liability. Institute a culture of integrity in favor of a culture of winning.  Ironically, Rice wasn’t much of a winner, anyway:  the Scarlet Knights went 44-51 during his tenure.

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