Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Lines That Can't Be Crossed

The big story in college sports today, without question, is the one happening about 15 miles up the road.

During the week of the men's and women's basketball Final Fours, attention has been diverted from there to Rutgers, where the video of men's basketball coach Mike Rice's physical assaults and verbal abuse of players surfaced yesterday.

Oh, and today is the 40th anniversary of the first cell phone call.

These two events are not unrelated, if you can forgive TigerBlog's double negative, though we'll get back to that later.

Let's start with the situation at Rutgers.

The video is horrible. It shows a coach so devoid of any ability to control his emotions, which is fine up until the point where he puts his hands on his players, throws basketballs at them and uses the kind of language that can't be used anywhere, let alone on a campus where recently a gay student jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge because of cyber-bullying over his sexuality.

Any of those would have been unacceptable.

All of them together? That's as bad as TB has ever seen from a coach.

And it's not just a one-time, he-lost-his-composure event. It was a pattern of behavior that was not only despicable but also potential dangerous, as in whacking a guy in the head with a basketball from about five feet away or less.

TigerBlog isn't sure how it evolved that it became acceptable for coaches to behave in a manner that nobody else is entitled to, especially teachers. But also band leaders, play directors, art instructors, debate team coaches - anyone who works with young people in a mentoring role.

Were a teacher ever to engage in the sort of behavior that coaches do every day, he/she would be gone immediately.

When did it become okay for coaches to scream, to threaten, to use profanity? Does it go back to the culture that used to exist in American sports, where the coach was the all-powerful figure, with the total support of the parents, who would never dare to question any decision that the coach made? Is it an off-shoot of the militaristic mentality that permeated early college football?

 Or it is just something that slightly emerged, a product of a profession of ultra-competitive people who are accustomed to having things done the way they want, when they want. In college sports, coaches decide who attends that particular school and who doesn't, who starts and who comes off the bench and who doesn't play at all, what drills are run in practice, what team rules will be, all of it.

It's easy to see how successful coaches can begin to buy into the idea that they are right, everyone else is wrong, and nobody has the right to question their methods. 

Pete Carril always said that every coach wants to be the next Vince Lombardi but that you can't be Vince Lombardi anymore because you'd never be able to get away with it. He was talking about how the coach is no longer seen like Lombardi, a tyrant, but one who gets the maximum out of his players, no matter how hard he has to push them.

The modern day coach, from the youth level through the pros, looks on television, sees the successful coaches acting completely out of control and imitates what is seen. That's how it is. Sadly, it starts on the youth level. And continues on the high school level. TB has seen it first hand - not a lot, but enough.

The reality is that coaching isn't about belittling players. It's not about getting obedience. It's about motivation. It's about putting people in position to be successful. 

The news that Rice was fired came this morning, and honestly Rutgers had absolutely no choice at this point other than to do so. When everyone comes out against your coach, it's over. And when the list includes LeBron James and most importantly Governor Chris Christie, then it's really over.

The question is, why wasn't it over in December, when the tape was first brought to Director of Athletics Tim Pernetti, who gave Rice a three-game suspension and a fine.

The answer to the first question is that it was an internal matter at the time. It's hard to look at the video and say "three-game suspension and fine" and not "you're fired, and you're probably in trouble with the law," but the reality is that Pernetti thought his coach was worth standing by at the time.

Maybe it was because it was mid-season. Maybe it was because he truly believed that the coach needed some intervention. Who knows? Maybe it worked. Maybe there weren't any repeats of that behavior pattern, and maybe Rice had made progress.

That video doesn't exist.

The one that did him in does.

And that brings us to the cell phone.

These days, nothing is private. Someone is always looking. And recording. And once it's recorded, it's going to get out. And then everyone can immediately comment.

And it's all because of the cell phone.

And that's what changed in the Rutgers situation. 

Who knows how many times there were similar occurrences in the 70s, 80s 90s? Today? It'll come out every time. There is no privacy anymore.

And coaches have to know this. Maybe that will go a long way to curbing the kind of abusive behavior that coaches routinely engage in, the kind that falls well short of what Rice did.

This time it came from Rutgers' practice video and a former employee, Eric Murdock, who comes out of this looking like the hero. It could just as easily have been video from someone's phone.

So what's left now at Rutgers is what happens to Pernetti. And possibly the University president, who signed off on the original suspension.

TB can't help but think that it depends as much on what the sentiment is, what the Twitter fall-out is, as it does with looking at what Pernetti knew, what his decision was back in December and what the logic was behind the suspension.

For TigerBlog, the whole dynamic of coach/player relationship, what is okay and what isn't, why coaches can curse and rant and rave and verbally abuse players and still be employed the next day is a fascinating one.

For the record, TB has heard Princeton coaches say things that were nasty and demeaning. He has never heard any Princeton coach use any kind of slur - racial, religious, sexual orientation or otherwise. He has never, ever, seen a Princeton coach strike, shove, push or punch a player.

Ultimately, though, there are lines that can't be crossed. Mike Rice didn't just cross them; he vaulted over them in a way that makes it hard for TB to understand how he wasn't fired back in December.

And to be glad that he isn't the one having to defend that decision today.

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