The outrage was visceral last spring when ESPN aired the damning video showing Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice shoving his players, hurling gay slurs and throwing basketballs at their heads. He was fired as a result, along with Rutgers’s athletic director, faulted for not responding more forcefully when first presented with the footage.
But rare is the college coach who has never lost his composure or raised his voice to drive home a point. And as the 2013-14 college basketball season prepares to tip off, coaches, conferences and college administrators alike are grappling with the boundaries of the often-harsh language of the job.
On this topic — what exactly crosses the line in reprimanding, disciplining or dishing out what’s known as “tough love” to players — the terrain is rapidly shifting. And when extreme measures are captured on video or audio, what’s the likely fallout from fans, as well as bosses, who clamor for victories yet cringe over the methods?
The consequences of getting it wrong can be profound.
A profane rant can be cause for a formal complaint to an athletic director or fodder for the evening news, as it was last month at Georgetown, where women’s basketball coach Keith Brown was forced to resign following complaints by some of his players of unprofessional conduct and inappropriate language.
Peppered with demeaning personal slurs, a pattern of verbal abuse can also be cause for firing — even grounds for a lawsuit. A former Holy Cross women’s basketball player recently sued Coach Bill Gibbons and the school, claiming he was physically and emotionally abusive and that the school covered up the behavior.
They are but two examples of a significant, emerging trend of holding abusive coaches accountable, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, lawyer and director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit.
While federal law covers issues such as sexual abuse, Hogshead-Makar stresses what’s new here is protecting athletes from emotional abuse or bullying, which is a matter of morality. At the moment, the definition of emotionally abusive coaching is as murky as college basketball’s new rule about hand-checking on defense, if not more so.
Said John Thompson III, who is entering his 10th season as men’s basketball coach at Georgetown: “At what point when I’m correcting a player does he decide, ‘I’m being harassed. I’m being bullied,’ or that he’s in a threatening environment? If I tell him five times in a row, ‘Hey kid, you’re not rebounding! Hey kid, you’re not rebounding! Hey kid, you’re not rebounding!’ is he being bullied? By some definitions, possibly.”
Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman believes the topic demands a serious conversation — not just in her conference but nationwide and in all sports, from youth leagues to pro.
“As a coach, to find the right balance between ‘kick-’em-in-the butt because they’re dogging it today’ and going too far is really hard,” said Ackerman, who speaks from the perspective of a lawyer as well as a former CEO and a basketball standout at Virginia. “What’s the tipping point? I don’t think there is an easy answer here.”
College coaches aren’t the only ones wrestling with rapidly shifting boundaries when it comes to language and behavior. In many facets of society, what was once deemed acceptable is now banned outright or increasingly rejected as inappropriate.
Much of it boils down to common sense, in the view of college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a member of Duke’s 1986 NCAA runner-up team. “If you’re an adult and you don’t understand that homophobic or misogynistic terms are inappropriate and unacceptable in today’s society,” Bilas said bluntly, “then you’re not very bright.”
In coaching, Bilas believes the key distinction is “being demanding without being demeaning,” borrowing a phrase from former NFL coach Tony Dungy.
“I never heard my high school coach curse, but he was demeaning,” Bilas said. “My college coach [Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Mike Krzyzewski] cursed a lot, but he never was demeaning. He challenged us. He used some blue language. But he never was demeaning.”
Coaching styles vary. But the best coaches boast a full repertoire of tactics — personalities, even — to coax, cajole and demand the best from athletes. They know when to play the role of cheerleader, tyrant, nurturer or taskmaster. And they know which players respond to a verbal kick in the rear and who needs a comforting ear.
To be effective in all those roles, they first must establish trust. And it troubles Marquette Coach Buzz Williams, who spews emotion like an open fireplug during the heat of games, that those who critique coaches don’t see the time and energy invested in building that trust off the court.
“If the only time that you’re dealing with your kids is when you’re in practice, no matter your tone, no matter your words, if they don’t trust you, it won’t work,” Williams said. “I think you have to be a relationship specialist.”
Added St. John’s Coach Steve Lavin: “Once that trust is established, and it’s genuine and authentic, and players believe you have their best interest at heart, they allow you to teach, coach, motivate, inspire and discipline them.”
Lavin spells out his expectations for players, as well as the consequences for unacceptable behavior — whether that’s running sideline-to-sideline sprints, getting booted from practice, getting suspended or getting kicked off the team. Still, he admits there are times he flat-out “loses it” with his players in a way that would shame his own mother.
It’s a lot like parenting, he added, or managing employees: Unrelenting screamers may get results for a while, but they lose their effectiveness if that’s their only move.
That’s the message of the Stanford-based Positive Coaching Alliance, which is supported by basketball coaches Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown and Brad Stevens, among others.
“It’s not good coaching,” said Jim Thompson, its founder and chief executive. “You do not get the best out of players by grinding them down, by defeating them. You want to have high expectations for your players because people rise to expectations that are set for them. But you don’t want to terrorize them.”
What disturbed former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma most about the endless replays of the Rutgers footage was that the players appeared so inured to the treatment that they didn’t fight back.
“These guys are warriors — college athletes trained to push their bodies to the limit, yet they didn’t feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves,” said Huma, president of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes across the county. “You wonder where else this has happened, where players feel they can’t stick up for themselves.”
If there’s a takeaway from the ugly episode, Diana Cutaia, founder of Coaching Peace Consulting, hopes it awakens athletes to their right to “push back” against extreme tactics and persuades athletic directors to intervene when coaches simply rage rather than instruct.
“It’s scary to be an 18-year-old and be in a situation where your college coach has national attention, is very powerful,” Cutaia said. “You’re going to go and say, ‘He dropped the F-bomb on me three times,’ and most likely somebody’s going to say, ‘Suck it up!’ But that child has every right to say, ‘I don’t deserve to be treated this way.’”
In the past, college athletes bombarded with abuse might have quit the team or transferred. Today, they have other recourses, such as a smartphone or the 140-character global megaphone that is Twitter.
In the case of Georgetown’s women’s basketball, Hogshead-Makar applauds the players who lodged the complaints about their coach’s verbal abuse, the audio of which was captured on a cellphone and aired by WJLA (Channel 7).
“I can tell you, that took a lot of guts,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Scholarship athletes have very little power. Very few have multiyear scholarships, so if they have a bad year or get injured, it can be over. For many of these athletes, it’s their ticket to education — not just a ticket to the NBA or NFL — but to education.”
While a recording of an ear-blistering rant may be an accurate snapshot of one heated moment, it rarely reflects the complex relationship that underpins it. Moreover, Thompson noted, it doesn’t reflect the vast majority of coaches’ methods.
“What can be inaccurate here is the perception that every coach behind closed doors is a maniac and that the real world is just now finding out,” said Thompson, a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ board of directors.
Nonetheless, ubiquitous cellphones and social media have brought new scrutiny of coaching methods.
Said Ackerman: “Obviously we’re living in an age when things can be recorded. That wasn’t the case 30, 20, 10 years ago. Coaches can’t even be confident anymore that the locker room is a confidential place. I think every coach in the country has got to be paying attention to this.”
So do athletic directors.
Cutaia, who held the post at Division III Wheelock College in Boston, believes athletic directors should observe practices, give feedback and emphasize the university’s values.
“We’re not training coaches around the ideas of building character and teaching skills,” Cutaia lamented. “We’re not even teaching sports anymore; we’re teaching how to win games.”
Yet that’s often the mandate for coaches of Division I teams that pay the athletic department’s bills, keep alumni donation flowing and serve, in many ways, as the university’s public face. In such cases, nurturing becomes a luxury.
Says Hogshead-Makar: “If the dynamic is that the coach has to win or they’re out, that winning is an economic imperative because if you don’t win 80 percent of your games you’re in the hole $10 million. If you’re not going to keep your job if you don’t keep up those numbers, you’re looking at abuse right there.”
At Georgetown, the conversation is ongoing, according to Athletic Director Lee Reed.
“When you’re in athletics, sometimes it’s very intense, very emotional, very heated,” Reed said. “Within that, we still have to be cognizant of not crossing certain lines. The certain line as we have tried to define it at Georgetown is making sure we’re not being demeaning, derogatory and breaking people down.”
But it falls to the coaches in the trenches to strike the balance.
“That aspect of coaching is quickly changing,” Thompson said. “Say we’re in practice, and [senior guard] Markel Starks does something that Coach Thompson doesn’t like. Two, three, four, five years ago, one way of adjusting Markel Starks probably was acceptable. Today, it may not be.
“At the end of the day, I have 13 or 14 17- to 22-year-olds who don’t always respond when you say, ‘Markel, please run in there and get a rebound!’ That doesn’t mean you have to take it to the other extreme. We’re now searching for where the line is.”