Gruesome. Distressing. Sickening. Appalling. Heartbreaking. No, I’m not talking about the very public injury to Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware, although these adjectives fit. I’m talking about video that cropped up this past week of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically assaulting his players. Making it worse is that his actions were brought to the attention of the administration in November by the director of player development. Rutgers’ response? Send the director out the door without a renewed contract, and slap the coach with a mere three-game suspension and fine. So the punishment not only didn’t fit the crime, but it didn’t really address the perpetrator, only the messenger. The case has an eerie déjà vu for me since my sons’ college soccer coach was eventually fired for the same behavior. Yet it took nearly 18 months before any meaningful action was taken. In the meantime, my boys and their teammates had to endure months of racial slurs and other abuse.
Some fans might argue that we live in a culture of winning at any cost, and players who accept a college scholarship have to also accept the tough atmosphere needed to foster wins. After all, these programs live or die (which means the coaches live or die) by their ability to win and generate fan interest and financial support. That argument might be stronger if all the coaches allowed to retain their jobs when faced with boorish, and in some cases, dangerous behavior had winning records. This is not the case with Mike Rice, nor the case with dozens of similar situations throughout clubs, high schools and universities. While Rice was swiftly fired just hours after the video surfaced publicly, it does little to change the perception of administrations, clubs and even parents covering up this bullying behavior.
Imagine a teacher striking a child in any way during a classroom lesson or belittling that child with racial or sexual slurs or calling a child’s intelligence into question by shouting, "You’re an idiot!" That teacher wouldn’t last long. Yet somehow when we step outside the classroom, the church, the library, the museum or other places of learning, we begin to tolerate this type of verbal and physical abuse. We excuse it with the wrong-headed belief that because it might have gone on before it is somehow okay to continue it. We entrust adults with our children because we expect the adults to behave in a mature manner. However, when adults in leadership positions fail to act appropriately, we often remain silent. Sometimes it is a fear that our children will be regarded as trouble-makers or weaklings for complaining. Sometimes it is because we witness other parents perfectly content with the coach and his/her style. And sometimes it is because we just don’t want to make waves.
Nevertheless, we have an obligation to understand when the line has been crossed. I’ve always supported gruff coaches who criticize play but not the player and refrain from personal verbal and physical attacks. All of my four kids have had coaches who yelled but not in a direct individual manner. Coaches have a natural passion for their sport, which comes out with an intense style of instruction. Yet winning can’t be an excuse for bad behavior. Teachers want to win, too. They want their pupils to succeed which also represents the teachers’ success. They manage to refrain from yelling, pacing the sidelines, and openly questioning administrators (read referees) in front of the kids. We would never tolerate a teacher behaving like many coaches do, and teachers have been fired for far less.
So why would anyone allow a coach to exercise conduct that we would never tolerate in our teachers, religious leaders and other supervisors of our children’s education? The difference is how we perceive winning as a nation. Winning in the classroom doesn’t have the same impact as winning against the best team in the league. It should, but it doesn’t. We put tremendous stock in a single game and can be distressed by a loss. We invest our energy and our ego into the outcomes on a field in a very public and immediate way. Coaches take that investment as a blank check for exercising extreme behaviors, which they believe will create or insure a win. All too often we parents buy into that philosophy. The sad and disturbing result appeared in the Rutgers video and plays out on the fields and courts of youth sports.
These coaches believe in humiliation as a motivator. Studies prove it actually has the opposite effect. If humiliation worked, no one would smoke, be overweight, lie or take drugs. Kids who are humiliated actually revert to negative behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, smoking, absenteeism, and even suicide. Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher did a report on middle school students looking at humiliation by both students and teachers toward other students. They included data from other studies and their conclusion was that humiliation did nothing to curb students’ actions and did great damage. Mike Rice demonstrated the behavior of a classic bully. He had the power to attack and belittle them. Using the umbrella of teaching/coaching as a rationalization for his behavior, he felt justified in pushing his players figuratively and literally to become winners. The actual result was a 44-51 record at Rutgers during three years without a single winning season. Three players transferred as a result of both the coach’s tactics and the years of losing.
Children need to see that bullying isn’t acceptable. We need to insure that our coaches don’t perpetuate a bullying model. The expression of any frustration or instruction should be focused on play not on the kids’ personalities, physical traits, religion or parents. More importantly, coaches need to find moments they can praise. It’s not enough to just criticize. Kids get a defeatist attitude, which means they don’t believe they can improve. So an occasional compliment can go a long way to continue to motivate progress. We see the way our kids’ faces brighten up when told we’re proud of them. And honestly, we parents are no different. We love hearing from our spouses that we look good or to be thanked for doing a chore. We welcome a pat on the back from co-workers or bosses. We appreciate the odd compliment while out, including, "Your children are so well-behaved." Likewise, none of us respond well to criticism, even constructive criticism, and we certainly don’t enjoy being humiliated.
We want to say "bully" to our coaches in the same way Teddy Roosevelt
used the word to mean great job. We don’t want to say "bully" about our coaches meaning that they overstep social and moral boundaries of behavior. We need to be vigilant and not to brush aside conduct that makes us uncomfortable. Many coaches will stretch the edges of proper demeanor until they are told to rein it in. We mustn’t be afraid of speaking up. Certainly, as children get older and the stakes get higher for coaches, schools and clubs, the expectations and criticisms will increase in intensity. But it never has to descend into the personal in order to be effective. Good coaches know that.