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Gay Athlete Alum: Rutgers Athletics Needs To Get Its Act Together

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A former rower praises the university for being a leader in LGBT acceptance, but in the wake of the Mike Rice fallout it needs to fix the problems.

Nicholas Angelides
Nicholas Angelides

By Nicholas Angelides
Class of 2012


Dear Rutgers University Administrators,

Greetings from a devoted, albeit currently disappointed, alumnus. It has been nearly a year since my graduation, and while I know Rutgers as a community unrivaled in so many aspects – academic, social, and athletic – it seems that you’re once again tripping over yourself right in front of everyone.

With all this press centered around former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, former Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, and transitively on the Rutgers Athletics Department, it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of the public’s gaze – and ire – has swung in your direction as well. This is ill-timed, as Rutgers has recently been a player in a move toward social, particularly LGBT, equality: the Rutgers Athletics Department has done well to vocalize such support through former AD Tim Pernetti.

However, the videos released by ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" demonstrate an astonishing level of enabling by Rutgers in its failure to deal with blatant abuse and homophobia. The clips have leaked at a most unfortunate (though, it should be added, appropriate) time: unfortunate for the public’s perception of Rutgers, and unfortunate for the Rutgers community – past, present, and future. Assuming you keep at least marginally up to date with current events, you cannot deny that we are on the cusp of major breakthroughs with respect to social equality and inclusion. The Supreme Court has recently heard the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases, gay marriage is now legal in nine states (plus Washington, D.C.), and professional athletes from around the world are stepping up to voice their support for LGBT inclusion in sports. This is a big play, Rutgers, and you are dangerously close to dropping the ball.

At this time two years ago, I was a junior at Rutgers University. I loved being at Rutgers. In addition to being a relatively accomplished student, I was a third-year member of the Men’s Rowing team (to be voted co-captain in my senior year) and the Ambassador to Rutgers University for the (then) newly established non-profit, Athlete Ally. As the Athlete Ally Ambassador to RU, it was my job to promote awareness about sports-related LGBT issues by opening a dialogue within the University.

I did this by communicating Athlete Ally’s goals to Rutgers varsity athletes, who I believe shared a collective interest in fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity on their respective teams. I met with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), where each and every member present showed their support for Athlete Ally’s cause by signing the Pledge and thereby promising to lend a hand in eliminating homophobia from sports. In addition to the members of SAAC, I was able to obtain signatures – thus, written promises of support (remember that, it’s important) – from the entire men’s and women’s Rowing teams, the men’s and women’s Soccer teams, and the women’s Tennis team, along with numerous other athletes and coaches representing many of Rutgers’ 22 varsity sports.

Amid the promising show of support from Rutgers athletes, I also managed to secure a meeting with then Athletic Director Tim Pernetti (who, in case it needs to be mentioned, is also a Rutgers alumnus). After a 20-minute conversation, an enthusiastic Mr. Pernetti took the pledge, read it aloud, signed and dated it, and handed it back, smiling. The pledge reads as follows:

"I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field."

I should make a few things clear at the outset, to you and to those looking in from outside the Rutgers community: my few interactions with Mr. Pernetti, along with what I’ve heard from many other student-athletes, lead me to believe that he is a genuinely good guy. He knew many athletes by name, and was a vocal supporter of various student-led initiatives. Additionally, it must be noted that in his tenure he accomplished a lot for our athletics department, including spearheading a move in 2012 from the Big East to the Big Ten conference. In this respect, I, along with many other current and recent students and athletes, am hugely saddened to hear of his leaving Rutgers. Whether Mr. Pernetti is truly at fault for failing to dismiss Mike Rice at the appropriate time is unclear. I understand that the precise circumstances of his stepping down are sensitive, and what has gone on behind the big Scarlet door is not a conjecture that I feel comfortable making publicly.

What I can say is that Mr. Pernetti was the first NCAA DI Athletic Director to sign his name in support of Athlete Ally, thus taking a step towards eliminating homophobia’s last major stronghold. In the wake of the previous fall, which saw the tragic loss of Tyler Clementi and subsequently a test of our University’s ability to handle massively sensitive events, this was a huge step. Whether he knew it then or not, that signature meant a step for Rutgers University, for our Athletics Department, for Athlete Ally, and – indeed – it meant a minor push forward to set the ball rolling for LGBT inclusion in sports. His signature set a precedent for advancing principles of civility, equality, and mutual respect.

The OTL video, however, rife with abuse both physical and mental from Mike Rice towards his players, presents a considerable spoke in the wheel of an otherwise thoughtful University’s endeavors. Keeping in mind the rapidly changing social climate and support for LGBT equality coming from all directions, there is simply no longer room for major mistakes like that of allowing Mr. Rice’s continued tenure at Rutgers. Going forward, it is essential that the Rutgers administration makes clear its complete adherence to these same principles of civility, equality, and mutual respect. You must consistently prioritize the value and welfare of your students over your fiscal interests.

As a student at Rutgers, and as an athlete, a member of a University team, and an openly gay man, I felt incredibly welcome and secure in being honest about the person I am. I know that it is a rare environment wherein a young person can receive, and crucially recognize, that kind of support. I hope that all current and future Rutgers athletes to have the opportunity to recognize it, and I’m positive that you as administrators do, as well.

I know that you are able to see the consequences of your actions, and I hope you will do your very best to ameliorate the wrongs committed under your leadership. The first and most obvious step has been taken: Rutgers has officially terminated Mike Rice’s contract. Now, you might start by issuing formal apologies, first to the players, then to Rutgers fans, and to the Rutgers community broadly. I am confident that the forthcoming Athletic Director, whoever it is, will fill the large shoes left by Mr. Pernetti and renew the Athletic Department’s vows by similarly signing the Athlete Ally Pledge.

Our University’s name need no longer be unduly dragged through the mud; as a successful, progressive, and thriving institution, it is in Rutgers interest to promote, and promote only, its very best self. It is time to take a page out of Mr. Pernetti’s playbook. While he is no longer a leader at Rutgers, I’m sure that Mr. Pernetti wants, like the majority of us as alumni, to continue to be proud of his heritage as a Scarlet Knight.

Thank you for your attention, and looking forward to your continued pioneering and success.

Sincerely,
Nicholas Angelides


(Nicholas Angelides, Rutgers Class of 2012, is a Postgraduate Student, Faculty of Linguistics, at University of Oxford in England. He can be reached via email at: angelides.nh@gmail.com)