When Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice made the decision to be a violent, verbally abusive bully to his players, he got fired and in doing so blew a big hole in the wall of coaching to let some badly needed sunshine in on behavior our kids think they need to suffer in silence. Parents are ready to put coaches in the same glass housing we keep our teachers in and by doing so, make them stop throwing stones at our kids.
ESPN released a now viral video showing Mr. Rice at practice throwing one Class-A tantrum after another: shoving, grabbing, and kicking players, hurling balls at their heads, using profanity, and demeaning players’ sexuality with homophobic slurs.
At first, according to ESPN, Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti suspended the coach for three games and fined him $50,000 after he first saw the video in November. He said he chose suspension rather than termination even though both options were on the table. Today the coach was fired and others in the profession are openly tagging the coach as a bully.
Eric Murdock, who worked with Rice told ESPN, "What this guy did the last two years is criminal -- it was criminal." During the two years he worked for Rice, Murdock said he and the assistant coaches repeatedly urged the coach to try to control his anger with players. "Bullying players made him feel better," Murdock said. "If he made a kid feel miserable, he was able to sleep at night better, even though the kid is going the other way and he's not going to be as productive.… He has real anger-management issues. He can't control his temper.… I can't believe that anywhere else in the country it is worse than this -- it's the absolute worst."
Rice reminded parents that coaches should be viewed through the lens of teachers and limited in their actions in the exact same way. Since we don’t stop being parents when our kids turn 18, we should not stop being outraged and taking action when an influencer like Rice teaches them to be bullies in sport.
I say this as a sport parent whose son, 19, is on the varsity crew team at Virginia Commonwealth University with some great coaches. He works like a man possessed to be an asset to his team because they are his “second family.” He knows the difference between a coach barking orders, a harsh criticism on his time or stroke versus bullying and physical abuse. The reason he knows these differences is because we have been through other sports, like swimming and soccer, where coaches took to bullying players and we took to another sport when the behavior remained unchecked.
Apparently we were not alone in our bully coach experiences, as Steve Horan, a girls’ basketball coach of 20 years and founder of The Sports Parent Network in Richmond, Va., told me in a phone interview this morning.
Mr. Horan had just seen the Rice video 45 minutes before my call and said that he was horrified but not surprised at all by the coach’s behavior.
“Coaches in our schools and at the college level get away with doing things to our kids inside the locker room and on the court that no teacher would ever be allowed to get away with,” Horan says. “It’s clearly a bullying relationship, physical and emotional abuse. A teacher would be fired. In the professional environment, you would be sued for behavior like that in the workplace.”
Horan ultimately believes in forgiving a coach's sins, but only when they come with something more than a hand slap like Rice's suspension. He agrees with Pernetti’s decision to fire Rice.
“We need a paradigm shift in coaching in our schools across the board need to re-examine how they choose and evaluate their coaching staffs,” Horan explains. “We need teaching and coaching programs for coaches. We have a lot of coaches who are just not emotionally equipped to handle their competition anger.”
Looking at Rice, I see someone who cannot distinguish between what it takes to lead a team versus the need to feel as if he is in control of the players.
Horan has a guideline for making that determination and it’s the TLC Rule. In Horan’s case TLC does not mean “Tender Loving Care” but “Teach, Lead, and Compete.”
“If we are teaching life lessons through sport, then as coaches we must stop and look at the bullying relationships we are creating with players and what lesson or message that is sending to everyone not only on the team but out in the stands,” Horan explains.\
Tell your young athlete this: A verbal push is fair game, but character assassination is a deal breaker. No coach or teacher has the right to verbally attack a player’s: character, sexuality, appearance, race, religion, nationality, or physical appearance (i.e. mocking unalterable features like a birthmark, not physical fitness level).
“Also, anything physical, hitting, kicking etc., is completely out of the question,” Horan says. “No way is a coach ever to lay hands on an athlete in either an abusive or sexual way. No way. Never.”
We didn’t stop being parents the day our kids turned 18, and anyone at a college or university sport program who tells us to shut up because our kids are now legally grown-ups is making a bad call. When our kids are out of college and in the “real world” we can stop calling plays, take that step off the field and just cheer them on.