Why do athletes tolerate abusive coaches?

In locker rooms, insubordination is a worse crime than abuse of authority. Unless that changes, nothing else will

Published April 5, 2013 10:50PM (EDT)

 Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice, right      (Reuters)
Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice, right (Reuters)

When ESPN released videos of former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice abusing players during practices -- kicking members of his team, firing basketballs from point blank range at them, screaming in their faces, and hurling verbal abuse at them, including misogynistic and homophobic slurs – it did not take long for Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin to come to his defense.

Malkin dismissed Rice’s firing as “political correctness ... run amok.” Hannity mused that he could understand asking Rice to “stop hitting” players, but praised the coach’s “intensity” and “drive.” “I like that he’s pushing those kids and he runs a tight ship. Maybe we need a little more discipline in society and maybe we don’t have to be a bunch of wimps for the rest of our lives.”

But most athletes and coaches have expressed horror: LeBron James tweeted that "If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that [the coach] would have some real explaining to do and I'm still gone whoop on him afterwards! C'mon." (Stephen Curry made a similar statement.) Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger commented that he would have “snapped” on Rice and “would sit [on the bench] before I would take abuse from that man.” USA Today columnist Scott Gleeson quoted Rick Pitino and Gregg Marshall -- both “fiery coaches known for showing emotions during games and practices” -- as being “clear that Rice's actions crossed the line.”

It’s encouraging to see a chorus of voices, especially men in the sports world, condemning this violent behavior and abuse of power. Still, the collective reaction of disbelief -- that a coach could be so abusive, that a university could sweep it under the rug, that players didn’t retaliate or walk away -- is a curious one. It sits uneasily with the reality that verbal, emotional and even physical abuse of players by coaches are commonplace behaviors, widely accepted and often encouraged in sports cultures and in American culture more broadly. Further, it overlooks the fact that players are taught to accept such behavior as a necessary part of coaching, done for their benefit and edification, and discouraged from challenging team “discipline” or authority. These nuances and contradictions in how abuse is addressed in sports are reflected in the impulse of Rutgers players to defend their former coach from public censure.

Beyond Mike Rice and Rutgers

Rice is hardly the first coach whose abusive behavior a university has ignored, covered up or otherwise failed to address. There is, of course, the still-looming case of Jerry Sandusky, in which Joe Paterno and several Penn State administrators were implicated. Neither Rutgers nor Penn State were anomalies in their decision to sweep abuse under the rug. Former Indiana coach Bob Knight’s angry and often violent antics were infamous for decades before the events that led to his September 2000 firing -- events including, similar to Rice’s case, the airing of team practice footage in which Knight choked one of his players, Neil Reed.

From her 1980 appointment (by Joe Paterno) as women’s basketball coach at Penn State until her resignation in 2007, Rene Portland enforced a “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians” rule on her teams. "I will not have it in my program," she told the Chicago Tribune in 1986 about lesbian relationships. Her persecution of players she perceived to be lesbian -- or even friendly with suspected lesbians -- was well known in State College and the local sports media. Behind the scenes, Portland threatened players with loss of scholarships and playing time and was said to emotionally abuse those out of her favor to the extent that numerous players transferred out of the program.

In 2006, Jennifer Harris, once a player at Penn State, accused Portland of cutting her from the team based on her perceived sexuality, and filed federal suit against Portland, Penn State and then athletic director Tim Curley (currently under indictment for perjury, child endangerment and obstruction of justice in the case against Jerry Sandusky). The suit was settled privately; following an internal investigation that concluded that Portland created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment" for players based on perceived sexual orientation, Penn State fined Portland $10,000 -- a mere fraction of her six-figure salary. Portland resigned two months after the suit was settled. (Portland’s persecution of her players is documented in "Training Rules," a film about homophobia in women’s athletics.)

A culture of enabling abusive coaches often trickles down to how sports programs and administrators handle allegations of abusive conduct by players, as well. Stories about Steve Alford arriving as the new coach of UCLA reopened controversy over his role in efforts to pressure a female student into burying sexual assault charges against a player when he was coach at University of Iowa. (Incidentally, Alford played for Bob Knight at Indiana.) The alleged coverups at Iowa -- in which other university officials were implicated -- mirrors charges leveled about coverups of sexual violence perpetrated by athletes at Notre Dame and other high-profile athletics programs. At Penn State, former V.P. of student affairs Vicky Triponey was fired in 2007, after four years of clashing with Joe Paterno over her efforts to hold his players accountable for offenses “that ranged from bar fights to sexual assault.”

“Tough Love?”

Sandusky’s is clearly an extreme case in several respects. Many would argue that the examples above are also extreme cases, and shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on broader sports culture.

It would be a mistake, however, to see Mike Rice and Rutgers, or Joe Paterno and Rene Portland at Penn State, as isolated cases, spectacularly rotten apples in an otherwise decent barrel. In reality, much of the sports world accepts as normal and mundane abuses that differ in degree, but not in kind, from the actions of these coaches and their employers.

Those of us who watch televised sports have all, at one point or another, seen a coach verbally or emotionally assail a player on the sidelines. In fact, mere hours after the videos of Rice’s abuses surfaced, sports media were already running footage of a visibly furious Mike Rice grabbing his players’ jerseys and screaming in their faces -- from games that were televised. This happened in public and in full view of sports media and a not insignificant portion of the country. This of course raises the question of why, if media outlets are presenting these public behaviors as somehow connected to Rice’s private, more egregious abuses, they didn’t warrant the same outcry. The answer is simple: Such behavior is common and expected from coaches, and even praised as showing players “tough love” and “discipline.”

For example, this past February, University of California, Berkeley, men’s basketball coach Mike Montgomery made headlines when he shoved one of his players, Allen Crabbe.

At the time, NBC Sports columnist Rob Dauster defended Montgomery as not trying to “embarrass or assault [Crabbe]” but instead “trying to find a way to motivate a member of his team. And judging by the reaction of Crabbe’s teammates, he needed some motivating.” Crabbe himself echoed this: “It was coach’s way of motivating me ... Everything’s fine. It’s under the bridge. No hard feelings.” Montgomery, Dauster argued, knew best as coach how to get the desired performance out of his players, and since coach and player both claimed to be back on good terms, calls for Montgomery to be suspended or fired were unwarranted.

The clincher, for both Dauster and Montgomery, was that the attempt to “get [Crabbe] going” worked: Cal fought back from being down 15 points, with Crabbe shouldering much of their comeback. Though Montgomery ultimately apologized for “inappropriate” behavior in the “heat of the moment,” Dauster concluded: “I’m fine with the way all parties handled the situation. I don’t think there needs to be a suspension.”

Dauster’s comments reflect an attitude common among players, coaches, commentators and fans alike: getting in players' faces, belittling them, even physically intimidating them, are all acceptable behaviors if they are perceived to “work” -- i.e., to extract the desired performance from players. Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell rightly notes that “if [Rice] had a winning record, this likely would've played out differently.” In fact, such behavior is widely seen as necessary for successful coaching. For example, Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino’s disapproval of Rice ["crossing the line”] was tempered by his statement that “In the end, you have to coach kids hard” in order to teach them about “authority and discipline.”

How, then, does one reconcile this belief that verbal and emotional assaults can be “motivational” with the horrified reaction to Rice’s abuse of his players? Pitino and other coaches have agreed that Rice “crossed the line,” but this only raises the question of where that line is, and whether coaches are absolved of culpability if they stop just shy of “crossing” it.

Even more questions are raised by Rob Dauster’s incisive piece on how Rice’s firing unfolded and the media coverage leading up to it. Dauster makes the depressing observation that Rice would never have been fired had the videos not been leaked, which likely wouldn’t have happened if Rutgers had renewed the contract of the whistle-blower, Eric Murdock. Further, Dauster reminds readers that enough details of Rice’s behavior had been reported when he was initially suspended to raise questions about why Rutgers imposed such a mild penalty:

An internal investigation ... revealed abusive, profane language used by Rice toward his players and an incident during his first or second season in which Rice threw basketballs at some players’ heads during practice. [Newark Star-Ledger]

In light of all this -- the ready availability of video showing Rice publicly behaving badly on the sidelines, the fact that the practice footage only confirmed and fleshed out what had already been reported -- shocked responses to Rice’s abuse of players take on a very different cast. They point to a culture that has yet to connect the dots between the normalization of a certain level of abuse from coaches -- whether on the sidelines or in private -- with more extreme cases of violence. The confusion on this point is perhaps illustrated by the fact that Dauster, the same reporter who rightly indicts sports media and culture for ignoring the evidence of Rice’s behavior until it could no longer be overlooked, wrote not two months before that he was “fine” with Cal coach Mike Montgomery shoving Allen Crabbe (behavior that was then mimicked by Crabbe’s teammates).

Connecting the Dots: Misogyny, masculinity and authoritarianism

The issues at stake here are much bigger than any one coach, player, program or reporter. Tolerance of abuse and bigotry as “motivational,” and the failure to make connections between this and more egregious abuses by coaches and players, are endemic in the sports world and American culture more broadly.

One example of such blinkered anaylsis: much of the coverage of Rice’s abuses has led with his use of homophobic slurs, understandably, given current debates about marriage equality and other LGBT rights. But Rice assailing his players with misogynistic slurs (“cunts” and “sissy bitches”) has barely warranted mention in many reports, much less substantial commentary.

In ignoring Rice’s use of sexism and transphobia (shaming his players by suggesting they have, or are, vaginas), commentators overlook the fact that misogyny is at the root of homophobia in sports and general culture. They also miss that male athletes in particular are held up as and expected to be paragons of a certain kind of masculinity, seen as the rejection of all that is coded “feminine.” Exhortations that male athletes “be a man” or “not act like little girls” are even more pervasive in sports than they are in general culture. So it’s little surprise that a coach would use insults that imply his players are less than men to shame, humiliate and control them.

Such behavior is often framed as -- to use Sean Hannity’s words -- a coach “running a tight ship” and providing players with needed structure. Players who chafe under or object to a such “discipline” risk not only getting in trouble for questioning the coach’s authority, but also being painted as “soft,” not mentally tough enough to take whatever the coach dishes out. That is to say, they become exactly the “sissy” or “fairy” the coach suggests they are.

We should hardly be surprised, then, that players don’t speak up about abuse -- and even, as in Rice’s case and many others, actually defend abusive behavior. Male and female players alike model the message they receive: that coaches who violate their emotional and physical boundaries do so for players' good, and players who don’t handle this stoically aren’t up to snuff.

Nor is it a mystery why even those players who do object to coach abuse choose to transfer out of their programs quietly -- as Eric Murdock suggests several did under Rice’s tenure -- or stay on the team and say nothing. Players recognize the profound imbalance of power that makes challenging abuse dangerous in a hierarchical and authoritarian coaching culture. The person they would be accusing holds power over their athletic scholarships and playing time, and has the backing of even more powerful school officials.

The reality is that speaking out is often a far greater crime in sports programs than coaches assaulting players they’re responsible for as figures of trust and authority. The consequences for Eric Murdock’s whistle-blowing -- after two years of observing Rice’s abuses -- illustrate this. Rutgers decided not to renew Murdock’s contract shortly after he raised the issue of Rice’s behavior with now former athletic director Pernetti.

Pernetti, when challenged on why Rutgers terminated Murdock but not Mike Rice, replied that Murdock was terminated for “insubordination” -- he attended an athletic camp against Rice’s wishes (the camp in question: a summer basketball camp that Murdock’s high school-age son was participating in, and which Murdock wanted to take a morning off to attend and support his kid). With his release of video evidence to media -- which may never have happened had Rutgers offered better settlement terms after his termination -- Murdock is resigned to the fact that, “because he broke the coaches' code, he'll never coach again.”

The message: In this world, accountability always flows upstream, never down. “Insubordination” trumps abuse of authority. This mentality, along with toxic notions of masculinity in men’s sports particularly, fuels the “locker room code of silence” that hinders players and staff from calling out misconduct.

It will take a lot of time and considerable effort to substantially address the issues that enable coach abuse and institutional coverups. But here is a place to start, perhaps: by recognizing that it’s not sufficient to condemn coaches who go as far as Mike Rice, Rene Portland or Bob Knight. We have to look at the culture that allowed them to thrive in positions of power, and enabled, covered up or turned an unknowing eye until their behavior was brought to light.

A culture that accepts, expects and encourages adults in positions of power to use a certain level of abuse to “motivate” players enables coaches whose abuses go far beyond what's considered "normal." It also makes it much harder for young players -- and the adults who are supposed to protect them -- to recognize and speak out against the most egregious abuses when they occur.

Instead of teaching young athletes to accept and shoulder abusive coaching as being “for their good,” let’s teach them -- and remind ourselves -- that they have a right to not have their emotional and physical boundaries violated. Let’s provide an institutional structure that is proactive about preventing and addressing abuse and protects athletes and staff who speak out about it.

By T.F. Charlton

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