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The Lessons of Mike Rice

Former Rutgers head basketball coach Mike Rice threw balls at players when they were out of position during practice. He shoved and kicked them when they failed to perform to perfection. He called them fa—s when they did not play tough enough for his liking. Video footage of these actions, aired on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” on April 2, ultimately led to Rice’s firing. The footage caused a national uproar, with New Jersey governor Chris Christie joining the calls for Rice’s termination.

When I first watched the video, however, I was not shocked. I was not appalled. I was not even surprised. This is not because I did not recognize Rice’s actions as disgusting and abusive; it was because I had seen it all before.

Playing competitive sports throughout my childhood, I saw all of these actions, including and especially the use of homophobic slurs, displayed by at least one of the coaches I played for over the years. These behaviors were never effective coaching methods, but they were ever-present throughout my time playing sports. It is not that I had come to condone this behavior; it is that I had come to expect it. Furthermore, I would be willing to bet that many of those who have played competitive sports long enough have had a somewhat similar experience. And this is precisely the problem.

This is why two of Rice’s former players at Rutgers have come out in support of their coach. They claimed that the ESPN footage had shown only Rice’s worst moments and that he was “not a guy we hated or despised.” These players respected Rice for pushing them to their limits, and were willing to overlook his violent, hateful outbursts, likely because they too had seen it all before. It seems these players, like so many others involved in college sports today, have forgotten the true role and purpose of the coach.

The role of a coach is ultimately that of a motivator. To get the most out of their players, especially at high levels of play, all coaches must walk a thin line between being tough and being abusive. But it is important for coaches to consider the reason they are cracking down on their players. Coaches are supposed to build character in their players. College coaches, especially, are supposed to be molding boys and girls into men and women, teaching lessons of life alongside lessons of basketball. To accomplish this, it is paramount that they administer discipline in a responsible and appropriate manner. Instead, coaches like Rice are teaching players that homophobia and violence can be overlooked as long as they are part of a package that breeds success in sport. Rice changed his role from that of a motivator to that of a petty tyrant, willing to dispense any sort of punishment so long as he believed it would engender winning on the court.

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It is precisely this misunderstanding of a coach’s goal as winning at all costs that leads to coaches “disciplining” players in an abusive manner. It is the same misunderstanding that led the once-great Joe Paterno to cover up blatant sexual abuse within his organization for the sake of maintaining the Penn State football program’s reputation. Paterno and Rice may have committed different infractions, but both betrayed the sanctity of the image of the coach as a role model and a figure of strength in the eyes of young athletes.

Pundits have often lamented the poor off-the-field behavior of our college and professional athletes in recent years. Many have linked these behaviors to their glorification and idolization by fans, but I would argue that the character issues displayed by so many of today’s athletes can be largely attributed to the kind of coaching displayed by Rice and Paterno—the kind of coaching that exemplifies Nike’s latest slogan: “Winning takes care of everything.” It is true that as players mature and reach the professional level, coaches no longer hold much direct sway over their behavior, but that is why it is so vital that coaches teach their players the right lessons earlier—especially at the college level where student-athletes are shaping their adult identities.

Rice’s actions confirm what Paterno’s suggested—that the abuse of power by athletic coaches has become endemic in this country. Many of our coaches have become nothing more than petty tyrants. Because this country places such a high value on winning, both through praise and through money, coaches are willing to do whatever it takes to create a winning program—even if that means damaging the characters of the very players that win the games for them.

All this is not say that no value should be placed on winning. No true competitors in any sport play just for the fun of it. They play to win. The issue at stake is whether they are being taught to win in the right way. The job of the coach is to promote winning as a product of learning dedication, camaraderie and hard work, not to demand it through abuse and fear. And as often happens to coaches that care only about winning, Rice did not achieve any semblance of success on the court through his abusive regime. His Scarlet Knights finished 15-16 overall this year, failing to qualify for any postseason tournament.

Carson J. Scott ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Grays Hall.

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