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Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice and the evolution of 'tough love' (+video)

The reaction to video footage of the tirades by Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice suggests that the public is no longer willing to give coaches broad leeway when they turn to abusive tactics.

By Staff writer / April 4, 2013

In this four-image combo taken from an ESPN video, Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice kicks, shoves, and throws balls at his players during NCAA college basketball practices in Piscataway, N.J. Fueled by outrage from even the governor when the video went public, Rutgers fired Rice on Wednesday.

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Calls continued to mount Thursday for the athletic director and even the president of Rutgers University in New Jersey to be fired for not taking tough measures sooner against men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired Wednesday for his violent treatment of players after ESPN brought video footage to light.

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Many see the initial discipline Mr. Rice received as a slap on the wrist and suggest it points to a double standard in the treatment of big-time coaches compared with other educators. But the incident is also prompting dialogue about broader societal issues – including the tolerance of antigay and gender-based slurs in sports, and whether the desire to build "toughness" in athletes too often turns into a destructive stream of negative feedback.

The reaction to the video at Rutgers and nationwide, some say, shows signs of shifting social views on what is good, hard-nosed coaching designed to push players to improve and behavior that is simply petulant bullying.

Years ago, Rice’s behavior might have been shrugged off by many as “tough love,” but this time, “there was a certain sense of outrage” expressed by everyone from sports commentators to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society, which advocates for social responsibility in sports.

While Rice’s behavior may have been extreme, the content of his tirades against players points to aspects of school athletics that should be challenged and reformed, Mr. Lebowitz says.

Not only did he use antigay slurs, but he also used demeaning epithets suggesting that his players were acting like women. “It raises the question of the construct of manhood in athletics and elsewhere,” Lebowitz says. “There’s a code of toughness in men’s athletics,” with players perhaps not coming forward about Rice because of a fear of being thought of as wimpy or unmanly.

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