Friday, May 31, 2013

One more barrier down

It looks as if a coaching technique that has been around for decades is about to disappear from sports.

The image has been a popular one. Coaches have been yelling and screaming at their players at all levels for quite a while. Basketball legend Phil Jackson recently said that a lot of people came out of World War II with a military approach to leadership, and they carried it into athletic coaching. There's a lot to that. Think of how many coaches have practiced something later called "tough love" - plenty of yelling and screaming in the name of discipline. The parents of the baby boomers have put up with it, perhaps because that's how fathers learned to teach as well.

Some coaches had a lot of success that way. Remember the story of Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys, featuring practices so tough that part of the squad headed home after quitting the squad? Vince Lombardi didn't exactly take it easy on the Green Bay Packers during their glory days. And so on. In basketball, Bobby Knight was extremely hard on his players - but most at Indiana looked the other way because he was a brilliant basketball mind who never cheated and, let's be fair about this, won games. My theory is that in the Sixties and Seventies a lot of adults loved coaches who imposed strict discipline on their players, perhaps because those adults couldn't do the same in their own lives - like in raising their own kids.

But time has moved along, and so have attitudes. Maybe we've learned that there are all sorts of ways to win, and one of them is to treat the athletes like people. Bill Walsh won a lot of games in San Francisco, and he refused to yell at his players. If Marv Levy had been very tough, I would think some of the Buffalo Bills stars of that era would have rebelled and the team never would have reached four straight Super Bowls. Going way back for an example, John Wooden never said anything stronger than "goodness gracious saints alive" but made it stronger than any curse word.

And now we're reached the tipping point. It came in the form of a video showing then-Rutgers coach Mike Rice verbally abusing his players and throwing basketballs at them during practice. Virtually everyone who saw it knew a line had been crossed. Rice even received a warning from the administration, but didn't - maybe couldn't is a better word, speaking from the outside - change his ways. Rice was finally shown the door.

That incident also cost the athletic director, Tim Pernetti, his job. The university searched all over the place for a replacement. It came up with Julie Hermann, who had a quiet couple of weeks on the job. Then it was revealed that she had been charged with the same sort of behavior as Rice when she coached volleyball at Tennessee. Hermann said she never heard of those charges, but this blog by one of her ex-players makes a very convincing and rational case that something bad happened in Knoxville. You'd think previous coaching tactics would have been the second or third question on the list by the Rutgers search committee.

I would guess that this is the tip of a relatively small iceberg. Coaches of all sports around the country probably have been reading these stories about Rutgers in recent weeks, and looking themselves at the mirror. Maybe they'll try to treat their athletes a little more humanely in the future. As for the athletes, maybe they'll be a little quicker to complain when they have a valid complaint about a particular coach.

I don't doubt that a majority of coaches have a genuine interest in teaching their players lessons about games as well as life. Still, we seem to have learned a lesson in the past several weeks about behavioral limits.


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