Monday, May 27, 2013

These People Need to Be Stopped.

Coaching is a tough gig, no doubt about it.

Whether you're a coach whose biggest challenge is preventing one four-year-old from sustaining irreparable damage to his still-hardening cranial soft spot, resulting from poking his little conk into the arc of another four-year-old's roundhouse t-ball swing, or Vince Freaking Lombardi calling the quarterback sneak on fourth down and goal in weather so frigid your QB can't feel his tongue...

...yeah, not an easy way to spend an afternoon.

Motivating adults is difficult enough. Motivating kids is far more daunting. And motivating kids to endure pain, to sacrifice of themselves in pursuit of an abstract greater good—well, you've probably got more favorable odds at getting your cat to take advantage of those Tic Tacs you left next to his bowl of Fancy Feast.

It's why a good coach occupies such rarefied air, equipping his or her charges with a tool belt that gets scratched and frayed, but lasts a lifetime.

And it's why a bad coach can etch a tattoo that fades, yet lingers forever.

Back in December, Rutgers University men's basketball coach Mike Rice was fined $75,000 and suspended three games after video surfaced showing him berating his players. The abuse was verbal—on several occasions he was shown calling players "faggots"—but it was also physical. In numerous clips, he was recorded jerking his players around by their jerseys and firing basketballs at their heads, feet and shoulders.

The video didn't reach public airspace until April, at which time the national outcry reached such a plateau that Rice was fired along with Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti.

It was a dirty house that needed some cleaning, but wouldn't you know it, the dust bunnies are already back. On May 15, hired as the new AD was a woman named Julie Hermann. Her credentials are impressive; she was formerly the senior associate athletic director at Louisville and has now become only the third female to lead the athletic program at a major university.

Prior to that she served as head women's volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee, and that's where she allegedly accumulated so many skeletons that she had to buy a new place with a walk-in closet.

In a letter submitted by all fifteen team members in 1996 and obtained by the New Jersey Star Ledger, the volleyball players said Hermann called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."

Hmm...whores, alcoholics, learning disabled? Wow, I'm thinking her subsequent two words probably weren't group and hug.

Their accounts depict a coach who thought nothing of demeaning them, who would ridicule and laugh at them over their weight and their performances, sometimes forcing players to do a hundred sideline pushups during games, who punished them after losses by making them wear their workout clothes inside out in public or not allowing them to shower or eat, and who pitted them against one another, cutting down particular players with the whole team watching.

In addition, the school settled a 1997 lawsuit brought by a former assistant who Hermann had fired for becoming pregnant. Nice. Always a bonus to have a co-worker with family planning skills.

And all this in the wake of another abusive coach whose athletic director tried to bury the whole moldy enchilada.

The true heroes in these situations are the whistleblowers. Student-athletes risk everything when they expose the individuals who brought them into the program—loss of scholarship, disbelief, ostracism—and they stand in defiance of the very structure to which they've dedicated themselves.

Questioning authority isn't part of the deal. At the expense of recounting another story of past glory, I nonetheless feel slightly haunted by an abusive incident I witnessed back in 1979. As my teammates and I assembled in the locker room during halftime of a high school football game, the head coach entered, completely enraged at a player for making a costly error.

We sat on benches, surrounding him as he ranted. The coach slowly approached the offending player, purple veins bulging from his crimson forehead. He grabbed the player by his shoulder pads and shook him, slamming his head hard against a locker.

The echo of bone against metal was deafening, but even more unbearable was the profound humiliation visited upon a seventeen-year-old boy by a full grown man. My teammate cried so quietly, yet his emotions projected a toxic cloud of rage and shame.

To this day, I regret not having stood up for my friend at that pivotal moment, a moment when no teenage error warrants the wrath and violence of a power-wielding mentor and educator. Consequences be damned.

Sports are riddled with stories of "great" coaches who've straddled the line separating motivation from abuse: Woody Hayes, Mike Leach, Bobby Knight and all the other proponents of the tough love school of discipline, toughness and usually a robust deprivation of both kindness and Gatorade.

But I'd like to think we're a little smarter now. It doesn't work and it needs to stop. Julie Hermann cannot be allowed to inflict any more damage.

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