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Did ex-Rutgers Basketball Coach Mike Rice Create an Illegal Hostile Work Environment in Violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

Rutgers University terminated its basketball coach in the wake of ESPN’s broadcast of a videotape showing him physically and verbally abusing players during practice. Public opinion seems nearly unanimous that Mike Rice’s conduct warranted his termination, but the question remains did he create an unlawful hostile work environment under New Jersey Law Against Discrimination?

New Jersey has some of the strictest anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws in the United States. Most notably, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination outlaws unlawful employment discrimination against any person on the basis of protected characteristics, which includes sex, sexual orientation, national origin and others. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court in a case called L.W. v. Toms River Regional Board of Education, 189 N.J. 381 (2007) extended the workplace protections provided under Law Against Discrimination to situations where schools fail to stop severe and pervasive bullying based upon protected characteristics such as sex, sexual orientation and national origin. This means that if a school permits severe and pervasive harassment based upon a protected characteristic, the school can be found liable. Moreover, if the school knows or should know of the existence of unlawful discrimination or harassment, the law requires that the school investigate, remediate and prevent it from happening again.

The video shown by ESPN of several Rutgers basketball practices reveals numerous incidents of Mike Rice pushing, kicking and throwing basketball balls at players. It also depicts Mike Rice yelling gay slurs at players calling them “faggots” and other inappropriate comments. ESPN has also reported that Mike Rice regularly called one of his former players who transferred to Rhode Island, Gilvydas Biruta, names relating to his national origin of Lithuania and gay slurs. Former Rutgers assistant coach, Eric Murdock, who is anticipated to file a lawsuit against Rutgers for unlawful retaliation and wrongful termination, has alleged that Mike Rice would constantly scream at Mr. Biruta by using his national origin and gay slurs. For example, Mr. Murdock says that Mike Rice called Mr. Biruta a “soft-ass Lithuanian bitch,’ ‘soft-ass Lithuanian pussy’ and ‘Lithuanian faggot.'” Mr. Biruta told ESPN that he took offense to Rice’s name calling and insults stating, “If you’re going to criticize me as a basketball player, I’m OK with that,” he said, “but he would criticize me as a person.” Mr. Biruta also told ESPN that the main reason he transferred was because of Mike Rice’s treatment of him.

If what Mr. Murdock and Mr. Biruta have said is true concerning the specific comments that Mike Rice said to Mr. Burta concerning his national origin, it is likely that Mike Rice created an illegal hostile work environment toward Mr. Biruta as a result of his national origin which would be a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

It has also been reported that Mike Rice would regularly refer to players as “faggots” during practice. Under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, a person does not necessarily have to be gay in order to be a victim of sexual orientation discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The definition or sexual orientation under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is male or female heterosexuality, homosexuality or bi-sexuality by inclination, practice, identity or expression, having a history thereof or being perceived, presumed or identified by others as having such an orientation. This broad definition of sexual orientation means that it is arguable that a Rutgers player, who is a heterosexual, but was nevertheless “identified” as being a “faggot” by Mike Rice may be a victim of actionable discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Therefore, Mike Rice’s identifying players “faggots” may constitute a hostile work environment based upon sexual orientation.

There is no doubt Rutgers did the right thing in terminating Mike Rice based upon these very serious allegations.