During the first individual workout of my freshman year on the Georgetown basketball team, a coach told me, “If you don’t want to be here you can get the [expletive] out of the gym.”
Afterward I called my dad. I wasn’t sure whether or not that was the new normal as a college athlete, but I knew I didn’t like it and it was unwarranted. Fortunately, that coach and I were able to resolve the situation, and we went on to have an incredible relationship. But at the time, I turned to my dad, because I knew he was someone I could trust.
The behavior displayed by former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice during videos aired on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” was appalling, and it ultimately resulted in the firing of Rice and athletic director Tim Pernetti. But I was left with questions about the players rather than the coach: Why didn’t they say anything?
Competing in Division I athletics introduces many athletes to a level of intensity they have never been exposed to, from drills and schedules to teammates and yes, even coaches.
They’re told, “We’re going to push you to be the best,” and, “Don’t listen to how I am saying something, listen to what I’m saying.” Above all things, coaches should be teachers, but that’s usually peppered with some screaming, yelling, and foul language, which often leaves newcomers wondering “is this just the way it is?”
On the flip side there’s tons of gear, traveling and competition in the sport you love at a very high level, as well as social perks. So it’s easy to get lost in the world of college athletics.
I know it’s tempting to buy into those NCAA commercials, ‘think of us as a spirit squad, no, wait, a marching band, no a mascot,’ but the responsibility is truly on student athletes and their immediate network of support. Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast in college and don’t have any personal gripes with the NCAA, but it’s not an omniscient presence that protects student athletes from being wronged. Depending on who you ask, the NCAA is responsible for some of those wrongs.
What strikes me most about the Rutgers footage is the way other players and staff react — they don’t. In one clip, a manager readily hands Rice a ball after he finishes hurling one at a kid. If the majority of the team goes along with it and doesn’t take it personally, does that make Rice’s actions OK?
Longtime DeMatha basketball Coach Morgan Wootten says the players should have held a team only meeting and made a decision to go to higher authorities, but fear kept the players quiet.
“The pressure for one person to do it, confront the coach head on, it ain’t going to happen,” he said. “Basketball is a team game. You get that kind of abuse from a coach, you’re going to have to get a team action underway.”
Even if the situation isn’t abusive, but there are things you’re not sure about, Wootten says go to people you trust.
“Anybody you trust, you have to talk it over, never be afraid to get advice or guidance,” Wootten said. “Whatever makes basketball work will make life work and that’s why you’ve got to say ‘this isn’t right and I’ve got to solve this problem,’ so you go to anyone you respect and go from there.”
So much happens in major athletic programs, probably even more so on the men’s side where the notion of masculinity takes hold and revenue is being generated. You’ve got to look out for yourself and figure out what being “true to yourself” means for you, and there is no shame in consulting those close to you as you’re figuring it out.
Good coaches know how to get their players to respond, and Wootten said coaches that resort to those types of tactics probably can’t coach anyway. A Clemson University study quoted by USA Today found that student athletes respond negatively to verbally aggressive coaches, feel less motivated by them and may question the coach’s credibility.
Hopefully your coach has mastered communicating with his or her players but even that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps along the way. Wootten said he never intentionally embarrassed his players, but when problems arose he wanted his players to come and talk to him.
The situation at Rutgers has put everyone on alert and that is probably a good thing, Wootten said. There is still often a spike in intensity at the college level even in healthy situations, and the most effective ways to communicate must be deciphered. Wootten’s advice if there’s an issue, even in healthy situations, is talk to the coach.
“If it’s something that [a player] knows is driving him into hole, making him hang his head and he’s not getting any good out of it, I would advise that player maybe after practice to say ‘Coach, can I have a little discussion with you for a minute,’” Wootten said. “Any coach worth their salt would say, ‘Sure.’ Just say, ‘You know coach, I know I’m not reacting as well as I should to the way that you’re coaching me and I think I’d do a lot better if you would back off a little bit.’”
After having a similar conversation with one of his players, Wootten said he backed off, and the player went on to lead the team in rebounding.
When the romance of the recruiting process wears off for college-bound athletes, the real work begins. Coaches can’t read minds and they’re not perfect so it’s imperative that athletes and coaches communicate. Don’t whine, communicate; if you ask a coach to back off, be sure that will help you succeed. But if you question a coach’s behavior or tactics, ask someone you trust about it. Don’t get toughness confused with dignity.
Monica McNutt was an All-Met basketball player at Holy Cross Academy who went on to star for the Georgetown women’s team. She will be offering advice to high school athletes who are looking to make the leap to college sports.
Got a question for Monica, or an idea she can use for a future post? Leave it here in the comments, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @__MCM__.