By David Cruz
When he introduced Julie Hermann as the new Rutgers University Athletic Director earlier this month, President Robert Barchi said “she is quite simply a remarkable leader, and she is precisely the person we need to continue to build and strengthen Rutgers Athletics.” He could not have imagined the irony of his comments.
Today, Hermann, brought in to clean up the image of an athletic program whose reputation was damaged by video of basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players, is now herself facing accusations that she abused players as coach of the 1997 University of Tennessee volleyball team. The accusations came in a letter, signed by the members of the team, alleging that Hermann called them “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled.” The letter goes on to say, “The mental cruelty that we as a team have suffered is unbearable.”
Hermann, who held a brief conference call with a small group of reporters today, denied calling any player a “whore,” saying she was an intense coach but never maintained an abusive environment. One player from that team, though, told CNN the opposite, and said she was surprised to hear Hermann would be taking over at Rutgers.
“I think my first reaction was, hey, isn’t that ironic,” said Kim Obiala. “Of all the people they could hire, here’s someone who’s done that kind of thing to me, you know, and to others. I mean over the years, she might have changed and learned her lessons, but back then, she was a similar coach.”
Earlier this month, Hermann was promising zero tolerance for the kind of abuse of which she now stands accused.
“It is a new day,” she declared. “It is already fixed and there’s no one that doesn’t agree about how we treat young people with respect and dignity and build trust.”
Reaction to this latest chapter of the Rutgers athletics scandal has been swift, with state lawmakers calling out President Barchi for mishandling this scandal from the very beginning.
“How many hits can we take before our reputation is tarnished for decades into the future?” asked Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono. “We need to stop the bleeding now and the Board of Governors needs to take a stand, and if not, the governor needs to step in.”
Buono said Barchi may not be the man to lead the university, but stopped short of calling for Hermann to step aside. Sen. Ray Lesniak, meanwhile, stopped short of saying Barchi should go, but made it clear that Tim Pernetti, the ousted athletic director, who many feel was made a scapegoat, should return.
“They attacked the wrong person and when you try to wipe the slate clean by making someone else the scapegoat, instead of accepting responsibility, bad things happen from that,” said Lesniak, “and bad things happened again, and it’s just one big mess. They need to get back to square one, admit they made the mistake; bring Tim Pernetti back and then move forward.”
Barchi released a statement today calling Hermann’s record of accomplishment “stellar” and said the university made the right choice. Gov. Chris Christie said he’ll be asking questions about the Hermann appointment, but didn’t share his thinking on the latest allegations.
It is unlikely that anyone could make up a story with so many twists and turns and have an audience believe it, yet here is the state’s flagship university attempting to reestablish the credibility of its athletics department and being forced to play defense — again.