The firing of the Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, — and the athletics director as well — remains the lead story on ESPN. I have blogged about it before because it raises so many questions about the priorities — or lack of priorities — at our major universities where the tail does indeed wag the dog: athletics trumps academics.
But there is another side to the question. I will not make any attempt whatever to justify the coach’s behavior, or that of the athletics director who simply tried to look the other way, but I think we might do well to try to understand what might be going on here — and in many other athletics programs across the country as well. Let me begin with a story close to home.
A good friend of mine was the superintendent of our small school here in my home town. During most of his tenure he was housed in the old school where the gymnasium was located on the same floor as most of the classrooms and as a general rule, except for PE classes, the gym was not to be used during school hours. One morning, my friend, whose office was just down the hall from the gym, heard the sounds of a basketball dribbling and hitting the rim of the basket. The noise went on for some time and was amplified by virtue of the poor acoustics in the empty gymnasium. My friend went out on the floor of the gym and confronted the student about the noise he was making and the fact that he was breaking a school rule. The student looked him in the face and told him to “fuck off.” In the end my friend was able to have the young man removed from the school property and the student was later suspended — as his parents shouted “foul” and attempted to have the superintendent fired from his job. I dare to say that in one form of another this story is echoed countless times across this land in gymnasiums and even in classrooms — as I infer from some of the blogs I have read by my teacher-friends who have very unsettling stories to tell about their experiences in their classrooms.
But what can we expect? Parents spend very little time any more raising their kids who, as they grow up, are told they can do no wrong. Their sense of entitlement knows no bounds. Even if the parents wanted to raise their kids with some “tough love” they have been told punishment and discipline are taboo and are almost certainly going to thwart their child’s potential — or some other psychobabble. Further, the kids go to school where the teachers are not allowed to lay a hand on them and are told they must raise the students’ self-esteem while at the same time they try to teach these self-important, spoiled children basic subjects they will need to know as they grow into responsible adulthood. So we have students in our schools who have had everything handed to them and who expect the royal treatment wherever they go. And the athletes have even a higher level of expectation — if they are any good — because dozens of college coaches are after them to have them play for their team. We begin to get a picture of spoiled kids with high levels of self-esteem and unreasonable expectations who are somehow supposed to be turned into a team — or taught arithmetic and basic grammar. It’s unreasonable to expect a coach or a teacher to keep himself or herself on such a short lead for the entire school year. The remarkable thing is that more of them don’t snap and start throwing basketballs at their charges. Or worse.
Again, I do not condone Mike Rice’s behavior at Rutgers, especially since his behavior is apparently chronic and not just a one-time thing. Coaches should not lay a hand in anger on the players in their charge, and the man should have been summarily fired: the coaches themselves should know what they are signing on for in this day and age of narcissistic athletes. Indeed, as noted, they are in part responsible. But one can understand why this sort of out-of-control behavior occurs and the responsibility may ultimately come back to the parents and the culture at large.