Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Psychotic Coach Behavior: Have We Really So Totally Lost Our Way in College Athletics?

On Tuesday Outside the Lines aired a segment featuring a video of Mike Rice, the Rutgers men’s basketball coach, physically, emotionally and verbally bullying players on his team during practice. Not just one time at one practice, the video was a montage of several instances of the coach’s rages over a two year period.  His tirades included homophobic slurs directed at players, shoving, kicking, yelling and throwing the ball at players’ heads, shins, groins at close range. It was a disgraceful display of rage. The coach’s behavior resembled temper tantrums one would normally only expect from a two year old child.

The OTL segment provoked an immediate response from everyone from Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, to LeBron James, to your average social media savvy sports fan.  On Wednesday, the day after the video went public, Mike Rice was fired. 

Mike Rice’s behavior was appalling enough, but the question now is why wasn’t he fired in November when the video came to the attention to the Rutgers Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, and the University President, Robert Barchi.  Their decision at that time was to suspend Rice for three games, fine him $50,000 and make him go to anger management  classes AND to keep the whole thing a secret.  It wasn’t until the video became public this week that Pernetti and Barchi started backtracking and finally decided to fire the coach.  Pernetti described his initial punishment for Rice as an attempt to “rehabilitate” the coach.

If anyone on the street engaged in the actions Rice directed at his athletes, they would be arrested for assault and battery.  If a professor at any university treated a student in class the way Rice treated his team, they would lose their job immediately.  If a men’s or women’s golf coach had treated their athletes like Mike Rice did, they would have been looking for a new job the next day. 

College coaches have way too much power, especially men’s football and basketball coaches.  When school leaders tolerate abusive and discriminatory coach behavior or respond to it with a slap on the wrist, or rationalize it away as coach being “fiery,” or “competitive,” or “intense,” we can be sure that that school has sold its soul to the devil of the mighty dollar.  In soulless and hypocritical athletic programs like this, student-athletes are pawns.  Their welfare is not important. Protecting the school’s reputation through secrecy and dishonesty is the priority.  Protecting the cash cow is the priority. Can you say “Penn State?”

The bigger question now is what should happen to Tim Pernetti and Robert Barchi.  How can Rutgers not hold these administrators accountable too.  They badly mishandled their responsibility to protect student-athletes from the irrational behavior of an abusive coach. These men showed incredibly poor judgement in responding to the video of Rice’s behavior.   That they failed to immediately see that Rice needed to be fired in November when they first saw the video, is a testament to the ways that money, the quest for winning teams and big time men’s college athletics can skew your values. Whatever their personal reactions to the video, they decided to take the sleazy way out and hope for the best.  I bet they’d love to have that decision back now.

I also bet that there are other coaches, athletics directors and college presidents who are wondering if similar videos of their team practices are floating around. Unfortunately, Mike Rice is not the only practitioner of the abuse and humiliate model of coaching.  I guess we can hope that fear of the public embarrassment that Rutgers is now living through might motivate other schools to rethink their values and enforce higher standards of coaching behavior from their overpaid diva coaches. Unfortunately, I doubt it. Winning and the money and attention it brings inspire cowardice and hypocrisy in too many college administrators, like Pernetti and Barchi, who’d rather hedge their bets and sell their souls, than do the right thing, at least until their moral compromise hits the evening news.