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Inside the Mike Rice investigation: A Q&A with ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr.

More than two weeks have passed since powerful videos led to the firing of former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice. The images aired on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on April 2 showed Rice spewing expletives, throwing basketballs at players, and pushing and kicking them during practice. Rice’s conduct, and the limited initial response of the university’s athletic department when the coach was suspended during the season, immediately created an intense national discussion on the role of coaches, administrators and universities in college athletics. The fallout on social media was so tremendous, argued CBS Sports college basketball insider Gary Parrish, that it contributed directly to Rice’s firing on April 3. Even now there is still a focus on Rutgers as it continues to deal with the aftermath of what school president Robert Barchi called a “failure of process.”

One of the key components of ESPN’s coverage was Don Van Natta Jr., a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who spent 24 years at the Miami Herald and New York Times before joining ESPN in January 2012 as a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. Van Natta has been ESPN’s lead writer in its investigation of Rice.

The National Sports Journalism Center reached out to Van Natta to learn more about his role as the story developed.

Q: How and when did you initially become aware of the Mike Rice situation at Rutgers and how did you decide how to start your investigation?

A: A colleague received a copy of the video during the week of March 25th. My colleague, John Barr, and I were given the assignment late Thursday afternoon, March 28 during a conference call with our Bristol-based editors and producers– Dwayne Bray, Chris Buckle, Tim Hays and Carolyn Hong. The next day, a copy of the DVD was delivered to my home in Miami just as I was leaving town for a flight to Newark. I spent more than a week in central New Jersey reporting the story.

Q: What was the biggest breakthrough in reporting this case? When did you know that you had a solid, impactful story?

A: We knew immediately that the video was unlike anything we had seen before. And we quickly concluded there was a public interest in broadcasting it. Working closely with ESPN producers Greg Amante and Justine Gubar, Barr and I interviewed Eric Murdock, on camera, at his Bridgewater, NJ home on Saturday, March 30. We also spent that first weekend talking with current and former Rutgers players. On Monday, April 1, a Rutgers official reached out to Justine after hearing from one or more of the players about our questions.

Q: The videos of Mike Rice’s actions at practice went viral immediately after the report aired on Outside the Lines and have caused quite a stir across the nation and the world. When did you see the footage for the first time and how many hours of it did you personally view? What was your response to seeing Rice’s actions? How did you go about planning your approach?

A: After first watching the video on Friday, March 29, I was stunned. I had never seen a coach behave that way. Even more striking was the pattern of verbal and physical abuse that had continued for a sustained period of time. We also had obtained several hundred DVDs of Coach Rice’s practices at Rutgers from 2010 through 2012. A team of producers, editors and production assistants reviewed those DVDs in Bristol that weekend and the following week. They found additional examples of verbal and physical abuse by Rice that were not included on the 30-minute DVD turned over to Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti on Nov. 26.

Q: Rutgers president Robert Barchi admitted that there was a “failure of process” in the handling of the Mike Rice situation. Athletic Director Tim Pernetti was in the middle of that process and his decisions, along with Barchi’s, have been intensely scrutinized. From what you’ve learned in your investigation, what was your analysis of their explanations and how much do you believe the stories of these two men?

A: We have already written several lengthy stories comparing the timeline of events with the comments made by Dr. Barchi and Tim Pernetti. However, it would inappropriate for me to answer this question as I am still reporting on this aspect of the story.

Q: Another very interesting character in this saga is Director of Basketball Player Development, Eric Murdock. In your reports and on Outside the Lines, Murdock was portrayed as the whistleblower and he believes that speaking up about what he saw caused his wrongful termination at Rutgers. However, Rutgers’ own investigation and new information obtained by OTL states that Pernetti was told about Rice’s action by the team’s assistant coaches months before he heard it from Murdock in June 2012. Does this new information cause you to question Murdock and his motives?

A: When reporting any story, we always weigh information we receive with the motives of those who provide that information. In this story, Murdock says he told former AD Tim Pernetti about Rice’s behavior on June 26 and, shortly afterward, he was fired. Rutgers has disputed this, saying Murdock was never fired and that his one-year, $70,000 contract was not renewed on July 2. This dispute will ultimately be decided by a jury or a judge if Murdock’s wrongful termination lawsuit goes to trial. From the beginning of our reporting, we questioned Murdock’s motives to speak out about Rice’s treatment of players. In our interview with him on March 30, he told us that he had felt guilty for staying silent so long about Rice’s coaching tactics. Certainly the timing of Murdock’s discussion with Pernetti, coming one day after Murdock says Rice “fired” him, is curious, and we have reported that so viewers and readers can make their own judgments.

Q: Pernetti admitted that he wishes he could go back and “override” the way that he handled the situation. What do you believe the role of the Athletic Director and staff should be? How closely should they monitor individual coaches and players who are under their purview?

A: I don’t think it’s my job to give an opinion on the appropriate role of the athletic director, and how closely an athletic director should monitor the behavior of coaches and players. I can tell you what our reporting showed: After Murdock reported Rice’s tactics, Pernetti told us on “Outside the Lines” on Tuesday, April 2 that he had opened a wide-ranging investigation that included interviews with current and former players, assistant coaches and other basketball team support staff. This was done, Pernetti said, prior to a second inquiry by him, and an independent investigator named John P. Lacey, was begun in late November after Murdock and his attorneys turned over the video during a Nov. 26 meeting with Pernetti at Rutgers. Pernetti’s office is located in the same building where Rice conducted most of his practices. Murdock told us that he’d often see Pernetti in the gym during Rice’s practices. When Pernetti announced the three-game suspension and $50,000 fine of Rice on Dec. 13, he said Rice “coaches with an edge. That personality is ideal for our program here in New Jersey. At the same time, there’s a Rutgers standard. Everybody who participates in our program at any level, I make clear what that standard is. If something falls outside that standard, he’s held accountable.”

Q: Pernetti knew of Rice’s conduct during the time that he was working to get Rutgers into the Big Ten. Is there a possibility that the state of the negotiations with the Big Ten could have had an impact on how Pernetti handled Rice’s situation?

A: I have found no proof that Pernetti purposefully slowed his initial inquiry because of the Big Ten negotiations. But the question is a legitimate one and it’s an area that we’re continuing to report.

Q: According to a report from your colleague Ian O’Connor that was published on Friday, April 5, at least 28 faculty at Rutgers are believe Barchi he should vacate his position because of his failure to deal with the Rice situation. How strong is the faculty’s case and do you think that Barchi will retain his position?

A: Unfortunately, this is another question that would be inappropriate for me to answer because I am still reporting this aspect of the story.

Q: Through your investigation, do you get a sense that the issue of coaches physically, verbally, and/or emotionally abusing players is more widespread than has been reported in recent years? Is this a cultural problem where different expectations are set for coaches than teachers or other people who are in charge of leading young people?

A: One of the more curious things we learned during our reporting is that some of Rice’s current and former players told us they had approved of Rice’s coaching tactics. Rice tried to teach his players to be “comfortable in chaos,” an ethos that most of his players bought into. A former Rutgers player named Tyree Graham told me that he had grown up in a big, tough and chaotic family, where hard discipline was the norm so, he said, Rice’s language and physicality didn’t bother him. “I was used to it,” he told me.

Q: There is a belief among some that Rice is not the only coach out there who is acting in an unacceptable way when it comes to his dealings with players. Would you agree with that? If this is a problem, what can universities and the NCAA do to handle it? Do you get a sense that universities and the NCAA are doing enough to protect student-athletes and have strong enough protocols in place?

A: We are curious if other college coaches routinely use Rice-like tactics and language. It’s a good question and one worthy of follow-up. As for protocols, Murdock argues that the NCAA should require all videos of practices to be reviewed by the athletic director. It’s a mammoth task, and probably not practical, but obviously the athletic director is ultimately responsible for everyone in the athletic program.

Q: If there are other coaches who are acting unacceptably, is there a danger that instead of changing their habits they will put more effort into trying to conceal what they are doing?

A: Because Rutgers University is a state institution, the DVDs containing Rice’s tactics were available for any reporter or member of the public to obtain through New Jersey’s open records law. In fact, Murdock’s lawyers obtained the DVDs through an open-records request filed with Rutgers last July and compiled the 30-minute video given to Pernetti on Nov. 26 through the DVDs obtained through that records’ request.

Q: Recently the NCAA has gotten involved in multiple high-profile cases. Do you believe that Rutgers, Rice, Pernetti, and/or Barchi will face any sanctions? Specifically as it pertains to Rice, do you expect he will receive a show-cause penalty that would inhibit his ability to be hired to coach at another collegiate program?

A: We have not heard the NCAA has opened an investigation into the matter. If the NCAA opens an inquiry, we will report that.

Q: ESPN has had some issues in the past few years when it comes to major reports. The network was criticized for being slow to report the Jerry Sandusky scandal and is still dealing with the repercussions of the Bernie Fine investigation. How, if it all, did these experiences influence this investigation?

A: Not at all.

Q: One of the main criticisms of this investigation is that ESPN employs Bob Knight and yet did not have him speak about Rice and the situation at Rutgers. What do you make of that?

A: Video clips of Knight were shown in several of our pieces on Coach Rice. But as for his participation as a commentator on this story, I was not involved in that decision so I’d rather not address it.

Q: It already seems that your work is serving to empower others, as there is now an investigation into the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Is this the kind of result you were hoping for while you were working on this report?

A: No. We had a story to report and we reported it – fairly, accurately and completely.

Q: Could you describe some of the responses you have received from this story? What was the most meaningful response that you received?

A: Most of the feedback was positive. My colleagues and I have received many notes of thanks for breaking the story and comprehensively covering the developments on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and ESPN.com.

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