Rutgers University – Forgiveness or Farewell?

The WORD – 4/4/13.  I love college basketball and I have lived in New Jersey now for nearly eight years.  But if you had asked me two days ago to name the head coach of the Rutgers University men’s basketball team, I would not have been able to do so.  Unfortunately, today, many of us have become all too familiar with the name Mike Rice who is now the former head coach of the Scarlet Knights.

Just to review some of the details, one of Mike Rice’s assistant coaches – Eric Murdock – made a video montage of Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his players during practices.  Rice dragged players, hit them, pushed them, kicked them, threw balls at them and called them vile, derogatory, homophobic names.  It was not just one single incident.  It was practice after practice over an extended period of time.  After watching the video, it is unimaginable that anyone would want this man to supervise their eighteen year old son, grandson, nephew or neighbor.

When first presented with this video evidence, the university president – Dr. Robert Barchi – and athletic director – Tim Pernetti – decided to suspend the coach for three games, fine him $50,000 and require him to attend anger management lessons.  However, they also renewed his contract for one more year and by allowing him to complete the season, Coach Rice was eligible for a $100,000 bonus.  They undoubtedly hoped that the whole thing would go away – and go away quickly.

But in today’s world, videos don’t just go away.  This one was eventually broadcast by ESPN and then it went viral on the internet.  Suddenly, in the light of day, the punishment no longer seemed adequate.  So, now Mike Rice has been fired and the administrators who fired him are issuing public statements in the hopes that they will keep their own jobs.

So, the question is:  Should Mike Rice have been given an opportunity to change his ways and keep his job?  Further, should the administrators who have handled this rather badly be given another opportunity to show leadership?  In other words, should people get a chance to repent?  After all, repentance – or teshuvah – is an important value in the Jewish tradition.

In this week’s Torah portion, there are two applicable texts.  First, Aaron and his sons – the very first Priests – were introduced to the sin offering when Moses said to them:  “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the Lord has commanded (Leviticus 9:7).”  From the very earliest days of our tradition, there was a path back toward God for those who had made mistakes.

In the very next chapter, two of those priests – Nadav and Avihu – “offered before Adonai alien fire, which [God] had not enjoined upon them (Leviticus 10:1).”  And God removed them immediately from the Tabernacle – the flame consumed them.  There was no opportunity for them to repent.  Although it is not 100% clear what their transgression was, their time as priests was instantaneously over.

It seems to me that the lesson of our Torah portion is that most of the time when we mess up, there is way to redeem ourselves and make the situation better.  Sometimes, though, our actions are so egregious that we must be removed from the situation altogether.

On the campus of Rutgers University where only two years ago a gay undergraduate was bullied to the point of being suicidal, an abusive homophobic coach cannot be tolerated.  He clearly had to go.  The question is: what took Dr. Barchi and Mr. Pernetti so long to realize it?  If they don’t have a good answer to that question, then perhaps, it’s time for them to leave as well.





About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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2 Responses to Rutgers University – Forgiveness or Farewell?

  1. Rev. Robert Morris says:

    Always intrigued by the skillful way you find the wisdom in ancient (and often difficult) texts!

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