That accusation made the Spirit’s decision easy to suspend Burke from any role with the team.
But there are other words and other kinds of behavior that aren’t as clear-cut in today’s world. Once upon a time, there really was no line coaches couldn’t cross in attempting to make their players better, whether it was Bear Bryant (among others) refusing football players water breaks in searing heat or basketball coaches making their entire team run suicide drills until they dropped as punishment for being late to practice or not hustling back on defense.
Thirty-six years ago, I spent a season with Bob Knight when he was both the coach and the unquestioned ruler of Indiana basketball — and, for that matter, the entire university. When Knight threw a chair during a game in 1985, he told school president John Ryan he would resign if Ryan suspended him. Ryan backed down, so the Big Ten suspended him. In 2000, when Knight denied choking a player in practice and video surfaced of him doing it, Myles Brand, one of Ryan’s successors, didn’t fire Knight or suspend him. He issued a “no tolerance” edict, which Knight literally laughed off during a television interview. Knight dressed down a student several months later for calling him by his last name and was fired.
Many of the things I witnessed during the 1985-86 season would get a coach — no matter how successful — fired almost instantly today. In the first chapter of the book, Knight reduced forward Daryl Thomas to tears in the locker room in front of his teammates with a raft of profanities I can still hear in my head.
Knight was not, by any stretch, the only coach screaming profanities at his players. The only truly great coach I knew who never used profanity was Dean Smith, but his former players will tell you sometimes they wished he used profanity rather than the biting sarcasm he unleashed to make a point.
“There were times,” said Buzz Peterson, Michael Jordan’s college roommate, “that you wished the floor would open up and swallow you.”
Today, there are lines coaches can’t cross. The question is where are those lines? There’s no doubt some players, male and female, can take more than others. Knight picked on Steve Alford more than any player on the 1985-86 team, not because he was the best player but because he knew Alford could take it.
For years, it has been common practice for men’s coaches to insult players by calling them names that refer to parts of the female anatomy. Homophobic insults have been part of the coaching handbook for as long as I can remember. Years ago, they were accepted, even laughed off by players.
Today, not so much.
But how do we get the message across to coaches — starting at the youth level — that some words and some methods of “motivation” are unacceptable?
Attempting to take all profanity out of sports is like trying to make Niagara Falls go up. Watch the HBO documentary series “Hard Knocks” for five minutes. Stand outside a team huddle at a basketball game.
But certain words — and not just the n-word — need to be impermissible. Can you police it all the time? No. But more and more players speaking out on the issue is important and should be encouraged. The problem, of course, is that players are scared to call out their coaches, for obvious reasons. It isn’t a coincidence the Spirit players who went public about Burke’s behavior are all former members of the team.
In the past, the line seemed pretty clear: Physical abuse was over the line; verbal abuse was not. When the Knight choking incident surfaced, I was asked whether I had witnessed anything like that during my season with the team. No, I hadn’t. The most physical I ever saw Knight get was grabbing a player by the uniform.
But the verbal abuse occurred on a daily basis. In today’s world, with so much more focus on mental health, it wouldn’t have been allowed. Back then, several Indiana professors and the dean of students watched practice regularly and never blinked.
When I covered Maryland’s basketball team as a very young reporter, Lefty Driesell wanted me to sit at least 20 rows up from the floor at practice. I asked him what difference it made. “I don’t want you to hear me,” he said, “when I curse.”
I laughed. “Lefty, I can sit up on the track [at the top of Cole Field House] and I’ll hear you,” I told him.
He gave in. Lefty really didn’t curse much. When he did, I didn’t give it much thought. The same was true when Gary Williams coached at Maryland. To me, when he got on his players, he was just coaching.
It’s different now. Should youth coaches ever scream at their players? I would say the answer is no — and, for the record, the same should be true of parents, who are often the worst offenders at youth games.
But college coaches or pro coaches? Jumping on players for not hustling or not listening or just plain-old screwing up is part of coaching. Players expect it.
A few years ago, when Ryan Odom was coaching at Maryland Baltimore County, his team played horribly in a game on the road. Odom, who is not a yeller by any stretch, was clinical after the game. A couple of days later, in practice, the team was sluggish and distracted. That was when Odom blew up. “Every team has a bad game,” he said later. “But when it carried over, I had to get their attention.”
He did. UMBC won its next game by 20.
I could list countless examples like that of coaches going off on their players to make a point. But there have to be lines that aren’t crossed. Unfortunately, for the most part, those lines are subjective. What I consider crossing the line might not be what an athletic director or a general manager considers crossing the line.
It is an issue with no clear answer, but it is very much an issue that needs to be discussed and dealt with. If the allegations against Burke are true, there’s no doubt he crossed a line. Unfortunately, the line isn’t always clear.