Friday, September 14, 2007

Rutgers Has Spotlight and Glare

By HARVEY ARATON

Published: September 14, 2007


Here comes another duck lined up for the shooting — and shouting — gallery known as Rutgers Stadium. Here comes another meal-on-wheels for a new college football carnivore, all the way to central New Jersey from Virginia, by bus.


Here come the Spartans of Norfolk State for what is certain to be a Big East pasting tomorrow afternoon in exchange for a $275,000 payday that will at least spare them an even more arduous journey later this season.

“The money we’ll make from this game will help us with a number of things, and one of them is to be able to fly down to Tallahassee when we play Florida A&M next month,” said Marty Miller, the Norfolk State athletic director. “We’ve always gone by bus — 14 hours.”

Whatever the chances, slim to none, of riding high from Rutgers back to Norfolk, Miller and his head coach, Pete Adrian, leapt at the chance to replace Howard — which, like Norfolk State, is out of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — on Rutgers’s 2007 schedule.

There are tangible benefits to a Saturday in Piscataway, N.J., as well as exposure and excitement for a team from the division formerly known as Division I-AA. “I was talking with the Rutgers people, and they told me it’s a sellout,” Miller said. “It’ll be the biggest crowd our kids have ever played in front of.”

Exactly what kind of reception awaits Norfolk State is another issue, raised last Friday night by an undetermined number of Rutgers fans in the student section, said to have profanely and drunkenly serenaded Navy’s players during a 41-24 Rutgers victory. The verbal assault — Imus in the evening — was first reported this week in The Star-Ledger of Newark, along with the Rutgers administration’s apologies to the Naval Academy. Writing in Wednesday’s edition of The Daily Targum, Rutgers’s student newspaper, the university’s athletic director, Robert E. Mulcahy III, called the vulgarity “undignified, disrespectful and unacceptable,” adding it had “embarrassed the university, the alumni and Rutgers fans across the state.”


It was bad enough that it came nearly six months after the Rutgers women’s basketball team was the victim in the infamous case of Don Imus, the subsequently defrocked shock jock. It was worse that the targets were representatives of a military academy. But beyond the characterization of the opponent — ascribed or imagined — is the macro-question of institutional accountability. How rabid is Rutgers? How will it deal with its newfound prominence as a college football power?

Will it pursue an agenda of academic legitimacy even in cases when it risks the possibility of losing the prize recruit and slipping a rung after a long, painful climb? Will it better prepare itself for the greater visibility that comes with an enhanced level of scrutiny?

With the Navy debacle presumably behind it, will Rutgers now realize that the many night games it plays for the sake of national television brings into high definition the fact that on campuses nationwide, sundown for many means the end of sobriety?

There is a very fine line between the raucous crowds and home-field advantages the high-minded sports powers from Duke on down have forever winked at, and the unruliness that can result when students and fans are allowed to do as they please. Just as deserving of an apology from Rutgers were the families now flocking to Rutgers games, many of whom, as Mulcahy wrote in the student newspaper, “were so upset” they “left the game with their children.”

Every player in an opposing uniform happens to be somebody’s child. Every opponent deserves a sporting welcome, and especially the Norfolk State Spartans, given the sacrificial nature of their visit.

They haven’t had a winning season in the 10 years since they joined what is now called the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. They lost to a Howard team last season that was beaten by Rutgers, 56-7. A historically black university, Norfolk State has in Adrian, a former defensive coordinator in the conference at Bethune-Cookman, its first white head football coach, the only current one in the country at a historically black university.

Miller said he had to ask the university president’s permission to make the controversial hire for the 2005 season, after a turbulent period for the program that included N.C.A.A. infractions. Adrian subsequently recruited a quarterback transfer, the 6-foot-5 Casey Hansen, who is also white and is now the starter.

“There’s been no issues, none whatsoever,” Adrian said when asked about racial complexities or complications. “When they hired me, they told me they just wanted to win. And I always thought that Norfolk State — looking at the area, at the stadium, which seats 30,000 — should be able to. Now we look at a school like Rutgers and say: Why can’t we be that in our conference?”

But what, exactly, is Rutgers after one season of flying? It’s going to take another season or two — and the university’s community at-large — to answer that question.

E-mail: hjaraton@nytimes.com


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