Rutgers: Don’t Look at Me…My Lawyer Made Me Do It

As is so often the case, with mounting pressure and criticism comes finger-pointing. In the midst of a well-publicized scandal, Rutgers University is now suggesting that poor advice from its outside counsel led to a series of infamous decisions regarding its former basketball coach.  According to reports, as Rutgers’ athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned Friday amid the scandal over men’s basketball coach Mike Rice’s unorthodox practices, he blamed the school administration for following a “process” that allowed Rice to stay on-board. With its back against the wall, Rutgers laid part of the blame on the Roseland, New Jersey law firm that allegedly balked at recommending Rice’s termination.

We pay dearly for good advice, and I’m not sure we got good advice,” Board of Governors Chairman Ralph Izzo said at a news conference on April 5.  University officials said that the November 2012 decision to suspend rather than fire Rice was based at least partially on advice from its law firm, which was retained to investigate videotaped incidents of Rice shoving and berating players, heaving basketballs at them and using homophobic slurs.  Rutgers’ counsel reportedly concluded that Rice’s conduct did not create a hostile environment, though he might have breached provisions in his contract against embarrassing the school.

Rutgers’ attorney opined that Rice could not be fired for cause because there was no clear violation of his employment contract. In a prior report, made public Friday, Rutgers’ attorney wrote, “While it is clear that Coach Rice was extremely demanding of the players, the assistant coaches and himself since his initial hiring … [his] conduct does not constitute a ‘hostile work environment’ as that term is understood under Rutgers’ anti-discrimination policies.”  He added: “On the contrary, Coach Rice formulated and implemented numerous policies and practices that were designed to, and did, operate to improve not only Rutgers’ men’s basketball program, but also to further the athletic and academic performance of all of the student-athletes on [the] team.”

The fallout from the Rutgers’ scandal and the dispute concerning the role of its outside counsel is reminiscent of similar claims arising from the Penn State scandal we discussed here.  Notably, professionals are more susceptible to claims or at least criticism arising from their role in public disputes or those situations that result in media attention.  Sure, high-profile representation provides an opportunity to promote the professional’s services to a wide audience but it also exposes the professional to closer scrutiny.  Thus, professionals involved in potentially volatile, public situations must take extra precaution to provide best practices and to closely comply with all internal risk management guidelines.