In the last few days, there has been much hand-wringing and posturing in the media about a newly released video of Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice screaming, shoving and hurling basketballs at his players during practice. The footage, we are told, is “shocking.” Several celebrity sports figures, including NBA star LeBron James, have called for Rice to be fired. Rutgers administrators did just that on Wednesday and are now answering questions about why they didn’t fire the coach months ago when they first learned of his abuses.
To me, what’s most shocking is how a big-time coach like Rice can behave like this on camera and not expect it to eventually wind up on YouTube or ESPN. What is less surprising to me is the coach’s disgusting behavior and demeaning treatment of his players. Coaches have acted like this for a long time, even on the lower, more hidden levels of the sports world. Surely jock-worshipers like the talking heads on ESPN are aware of this.
When I was in fourth grade at a small private school, we had a surly P.E. instructor named Coach Whitney. He was also the school’s varsity basketball coach and it was pretty clear to everyone that teaching 10-year-olds was not a favorite part of his job. One day, my classmates and I were lined up for some sort of exercise and I was giggling with one of my friends. The coach grabbed a dodge ball, hurled it as hard as he could from about 20 feet away and hit me square in the face. My classmates laughed nervously. We were all afraid of Coach Whitney, who stared me down for a few seconds before turning his wrath to someone else. I was embarrassed and, obviously, red-faced, and I never spoke to anyone about the incident.
My subsequent coaches were a little better, but not much. In seventh grade, one of them strongly suggested to my class that I was a sissy because I took piano lessons and was good friends with one of the more sensitive boys in our grade. In 8th grade, another coach basically ignored me until it was time for me to received a paddling for misbehavior. In 10th grade, I had a female coach glare at me and tell me I was worthless.
I don’t bring this personal history up to inspire pity. I had a good childhood and was not scarred in any way by my bad teachers or coaches. My intent is to point out that coaches, in many cases, are jerks. There were a lot of them who behaved aggressively and churlishly when I was in school in the 1980s. I’m sure there also were coaches who were caring, inspiring molders of young men and woman. I don’t remember knowing any, though.
I know things have changed a lot in the 30 years since I was a kid. Our camera-filled, media-saturated society is less tolerant of bullying behavior, which is a good thing. But I sense that there are probably still a few jerks out there in the coaching ranks, as Mike Rice’s now-famous tantrums suggest. For anyone to pretend otherwise is to be totally ignorant of sports on even an elementary school level.
There’s a reason why Billy Bob Thornton’s Mr. Woodcock strikes a chord with many adult men my age. It’s not because we have incredibly bad taste in movies. It’s because we all knew a Mr. Woodcock at some time during our formative years. Many of us would probably like nothing more than to bean him with a rubbery dodge ball today.
So how about you? Any “shocking” gym class stories you’d care to tell? Or maybe you can recall a coach who encouraged and inspired his or her pupils? Do you believe Rutgers’ treatment of Mike Rice was fair and just? I’d love your perspective.