Rutgers University fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice today, one day after ESPN’s Outside the Lines released a video showing Rice berating and insulting his players, throwing basketballs at people’s heads and limbs, and generally behaving like a jackass.
Some of Rice’s behavior seemed to verge on criminal assault; if Rice had tossed a basketball at a stranger’s head at point-blank range, odds are good he might have earned handcuffs and a court date. Could Mike Rice be held criminally liable for assaulting his players?
If you’ve ever played organized sports, you know that there are a lot of coaches who use violence and intimidation as a motivational technique. Back when I was playing football, one of our coaches liked to kick players in their helmeted heads unexpectedly. This definitely kept us alert, and it was an impressive display of flexibility. It was still a jackass thing to do, though. (I should add, for what it’s worth, that he was a good guy otherwise.)
But coaches are only very rarely arrested for violence against their players, for the simple reason that athletes who are assaulted by their coaches rarely have any incentive to report the incidents. In college, your coach has the power to revoke your scholarship. No player wants to risk having that happen.
Rice’s actions seem to qualify as simple assault, which the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice defines as “attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another” and “attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.” But it would be hard to prosecute Mike Rice for throwing basketballs. First, someone would have to initiate a complaint—which, as I suggested above, might be easier said than done. Second, the complaint would have to refer to a relatively recent action—in New Jersey, “disorderly persons offenses” like simple assault have a one-year statute of limitations. (According to ESPN.com, the video “shows practices from 2010-2012,” so it’s possible that some of the footage would be within that one-year limit.)
Finally, even if the case went to trial, the video footage alone might not be enough to convict Rice. In February, a Philadelphia judge acquitted a police officer who had been charged with assault after a video recorded him ostensibly striking a civilian during a Puerto Rican Day parade.
The judge found that the video wasn’t conclusive proof that an assault had occurred. “Video technology in most cases does not record enough images to exactly replicate reality,” a forensic video analyst told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
So, no, Mike Rice probably won’t be held criminally liable for his actions. But he also probably won’t get another job coaching basketball any time soon. For a guy who takes organized sports as seriously as Rice apparently does, maybe that’s punishment enough.