With Mike Rice, we must draw a line

On any playing field at any level, there is always an area that is out of bounds. Cross the line and there's a penalty.

There needs to be a similar line for coaches' behavior, and really, it's not that hard to delineate. Touch an athlete in any way other than a good-natured pat on the back and pay the price, and pay it dearly.

On Tuesday, "Outside The Lines" aired video of Rutgers coach Mike Rice hurling a basketball at various players' heads, backs and feet during various practices. It looked like many of the Scarlet Knights had brushed up on their dodgeball skills to evade the incoming attacks.

Rice grabbed some players by the scruff of their practice jerseys, and others he shoved in the chest or forcibly moved into position.

The video isn't new. In fact, a former assistant coach presented it to athletic director Tim Pernetti in the fall, and after he saw it, Pernetti suspended Rice, fined him $50,000 and ordered him to attend anger management courses.

By explanation on OTL, Pernetti said: "Mike Rice wavered from the Rutgers standard, and we thought the punishment was fair for a first offense."

In fact, he repeated the words "first offense" at least a half-dozen times.

So, just wondering, how many chances do you get to assault an athlete? Missed that information in the student-athlete handbook.

Coaches, colleges, conferences and the NCAA love to prattle on about what's best for the student-athlete. Here's what's not best for them -- personal verbal attacks and physical abuse from the coaches charged with their care.

It has to stop with a line as crystal clear as the chalk on a baseball diamond. If coaches can be fired for not winning enough games, surely it isn't asking too much to dismiss them for abusing the players they promise in recruiting season to treat like their own sons and daughters.

But as much as Rice is the crux of this particular problem, the issue is bigger than him.

This goes to the doorstep of Pernetti and Rutgers and institutions everywhere. The university's dismissal of Rice's behavior with a slap on the wrist and a promise of education makes it seem like this simply isn't a big deal -- or worse, that it's somehow tolerable.

Which is why it keeps happening.

Last year, Texas Tech coach Billy Gillispie was finally fired after a player insurrection. Two weeks ago, a Yahoo! Sports report detailed the actions of a former University of Utah swim coach, whose practice techniques bordered on the sadistic, with swimmers asked to train in the water with PVC piping strapped to their backs.

Parents complained, but it wasn't until the Yahoo! report that the university agreed to look into its own role of ignoring the accusations for years.

Rutgers, meanwhile, has dismissed one basketball coach (Kevin Bannon) for ordering players to strip during practice and fired another (Fred Hill) after an alleged verbal altercation at a baseball game.

More pointed, three years ago freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, his suicide coming after his roommate outed him online. Clementi wasn't an athlete. He was a musician -- so why does it matter?

It matters because in the video, Rice refers to players as "f---ing fairies" and "f---ing f----ts."

Yet to Pernetti, such homophobic words and intolerance coming from a high-profile Rutgers employee who works with young men merits merely a little timeout.

Words matter, and they carry weight with as much heft as a shove.

Every time a university looks the other way or dishes out a dismissive punishment, it's like sending an abuser back into the home of a domestic violence victim.

And the argument, as Pernetti made, that he "didn't have players lining up outside his office" to complain is as disingenuous as it is foolish. Ask people who work with people who are abused. They're afraid to speak out, especially if, as with Rice, the guy is still empowered.

Too long this sort of behavior has been excused as being tough, demanding, fiery or intense.

When Pernetti hired Rice, he said he knew he was hiring a coach with a "fiery personality," and when the AD levied his fines, he made it seem as if Rice was some character actor out of "The Sopranos."

"I knew exactly what I was getting, and I still know what I've got,'' he said. "Mike coaches with an edge. That personality is ideal for our program here in New Jersey.''

This has nothing to do with fiery. Plenty of coaches are fiery, unafraid to offer a good verbal tongue-lashing to a player to get his attention.

That's not the same as putting your hands on a player and shoving him. That's not the same as aiming a fastball basketball at an athlete's head, back or feet. That's not the same as using derogatory language to try to belittle a person.

Mike Rice's actions weren't fiery. They were abusive, cruel and out of bounds.

And it's about time we drew the boundaries.