Rutgers abuse case offers window into an imbalance of power

College basketball crowns its national champion Monday at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, where every jump shot, free throw, slam dunk and turnover will be celebrated, jeered, wagered on and analyzed in painstaking detail. But in the run-up to this year’s NCAA Final Four, the most intense spotlight is on what happens behind the closed doors of practice, where coaches cultivate the performances that captivate TV viewers throughout the sporting season known as March Madness.

The catalyst was a 30-minute videotape documenting the physical abuse and profane verbal assaults that Rutgers Coach Mike Rice hurled at his own players during practice over a two-year span. Rice, 44, was fired Wednesday, the day after ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” broadcast the footage. On Friday, Athletic Director Tim Pernetti resigned, widely castigated for not firing Rice when presented with the evidence in November when the school instead chose a three-game suspension, $50,000 fine and mandated counseling. And Rutgers President Robert L. Barchi continues to draw criticism for failing to act swiftly and decisively.

On one level, the ugly episode serves as yet another wake-up call for college administrators who demand coaches win yet plead ignorance of their methods. On another, it sheds light on the broad power of head coaches and the limited options available to student-athletes when subject to abusive behavior.

While football and men’s basketball players may generate millions for athletic-department coffers at Division I schools, they’re not classified as employees and have little choice but to transfer elsewhere, forced to sit out one year of competition under NCAA rules, if they feel mistreated by their coach.

That’s a fundamental unfairness in the view of the National College Players Association, which since 2001 has pressed for greater rights and financial compensation for student-athletes. This week, the group called on the NCAA to pass emergency legislation requiring assistant coaches and athletic staff to report cases of abuse against athletes. It also renewed its call for allowing players to transfer without the penalty of missing a season.


“This is a moment when we ought to reflect and ask, ‘Who has the responsibility to end this type of abuse?’ Surely the college president, surely the athletic director who watched the video but, also, the assistant coaches have a responsibility,” said Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player who is president of the NCPA. “This coach was given a slap on the wrist behind closed doors. The NCAA has no rule that says a physically abusive coach can no longer coach. But a player fleeing an abusive coach is penalized one year of eligibility. There is a vast difference in terms of basic protection.”

Is it a fine line?

While countless former college athletes look back on their playing days as character building, and their coaches as the key figures in that process, there is no shortage of examples of coaches who abuse their positions of power in pursuit of a winning record. Oftentimes, the line of acceptable behavior is open to interpretation. What strikes one athlete as “tough love” may be interpreted by another as abuse.

George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt, 49, counts himself a friend of Rice, and doesn’t condone the behavior that cost Rice his job. But he understands the pressures that may have played a role.

“Probably more than 60 percent of the people who have been coaching for more than 20 years have had an instance they regret — where they may have tossed a ball at a kid or maybe incorrectly put their hands on them,” Hewitt said. “There was a time, 20, 30 years ago, where a coach could do that, and the parents signed off on that: ‘The kid needs discipline!’ But we all understand, number one, that it’s wrong. And, number two, we’re in a society now where people are going to take some action.”

Former U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar and 2013 inductee into the National College Basketball Hall of Fame, isn’t so sure. McMillen said he had no idea how he would have reacted if a college coach had repeatedly thrown a ball at his head. The footage of Rice’s practice — so alien to McMillen’s own experience playing for Lefty Driesell at Maryland — raised difficult questions.

“If you’re the student-athlete, how much of this abuse do you tolerate when you have such a disparity between the coach who is paid millions of dollars and the player who is told you get a scholarship and nothing else?” McMillen asked. “It’s a very skewed system. What is the role of the student-athlete in this system? Just pawns? Quasi-employees? What are they? If that were occurring in the workplace, you would have 20 suits against the university every day.”

But on college campuses that compete in big-time sports, football and men’s basketball coaches, who bring in the bulk of revenue for their athletic departments, often run their teams as fiefdoms. They wield profound power over student-athletes, able to not only revoke playing time but also revoke scholarships, which are awarded on an annual basis. Their assistant coaches typically serve on one-year contracts and, as such, likely will not dissent if something is awry. And as long as the team is winning, athletic directors and university presidents tend not to delve deeply into their methods.

Hewitt, who led Georgia Tech to the NCAA championship game in 2004, said he doesn’t see any power imbalance between college coaches and players. He points to the number of students who transfer each year — most of them, he argues, aren’t trying to escape an abusive situation but are seeking more playing time or a higher-profile team or conference.

“As far as power and who has control, there’s a pretty good balance out there,” Hewitt said. “If a kid doesn’t want to be there, believe me, they’ll get another scholarship.”

Former Maryland and NBA standout Len Elmore, who earned a law degree at Harvard and now serves as a basketball commentator, said it shouldn’t come to that. It ought to be a given, Elmore says, that any athlete who feels a coach’s behavior crosses a line can take his or her concerns to their athletic director and get a fair hearing.

A better approach

Jim Thompson, founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance, hopes the Rutgers episode will launch a national conversation about good coaching, viewing it as “a national teaching moment for the country.”

Thompson, who learned the benefits of positive reinforcement while working at a school for troubled youngsters, started the organization after seeing the negative coaching that was rampant in youth sports when his own children competed. His goal was to shift the culture of youth sports to developing better people. Among the converts to his philosophy, laid out in the book, “Positive Coaching,” was former NBA coach Phil Jackson.

In short, Thompson believes coaches should pay more attention to helping athletes master their sport than trying to win. Fixating on winning, he says, only creates anxiety and situations athletes can’t control. Moreover, he believes that athletes respond far better to positive feedback than negative and determined what he calls “a magic ratio” of five positives for every criticism.

Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, who was trained as a teacher and patterned his coaching style after the “fair but firm” approach of Morgan Wootten, his former coach and mentor at DeMatha, instinctively balances criticism with encouragement.

“When I get after a guy, I like to do it in a setting where they’re never embarrassed — one-on-one,” Brey said. “And if I’ve been hard on ’em in practice, I make sure I put my arm around ’em at the end.”

Like McMillen, Elmore recalls Driesell as ingenious in coaxing the best out of athletes — tough but respectful.

“Part of a coach’s job is to make it tougher in practice from a pressure standpoint, so when you get to the game, the game seems like a cakewalk,” Elmore said. “But there are ways to do it without abuse.

“I don’t think it’s any secret how people should treat people. That’s what the situation at Rutgers came down to. It was about a total disrespect of these student-athletes, and partly because the coach didn’t believe they had any recourse.”

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