Lead Story

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.


11 thoughts on “Lead Story

  1. Interesting post. The star athletes identified early are placed on traveling teams of all stars, so they are coddled from an early age such as 12. They get to college and realize that everyone is just as good or better, so the parents living vicariously through their children get mad at the coach when their child does not get playing time. The right answer as a coach is for the child to talk with the coach and ask what can I work on to get more playing time. If the coach is honest with the child and says here is what you need to work on, but you need to know that I need you to work hard in practice to make the first team work hard as that will make us better. On the flip side, I have been yelled at by coaches many times, but I can recall only one who would was ever physical and he was not respected nor a good coach.

    • I think the major problem with the Rutgers incident is the way the university tried to hush the whole thing up. It’s the “cover-up culture” that is the problem. But, clearly, the basketball coach and his assistant crossed a line.


  2. This is an excellent post, and one that got me to thinking. What if you switched the coaches and students in this story? What of the coaches with unrealistic expectations, “And the Coaches have even a higher level of expectation — if they are any good — because dozens of colleges are after them to have them coach their team.” They get a feeling of invinceability, they are narcissistic, they are special and above the norm.

    In sports, I believe we have the same behavior by many of the coaches, who are above the fray, demand special behavior, perks, and outlandish salaries. Rice’s behavior was chronic, long term, and he expected to be protected by the school and his AD. Proof positive was his pathetic behavior after his firing, and his almost deer in the headlights response on his TV appearances, and begging for forgiveness and understanding.

    This is a sad commentary on everyone involved, and we are all responsible for making it happen, allowing it to happen.

    • Good point about the coaches. They are clearly narcissistic as well and without principles given the way they opt out of contracts at the drop of a pin!


  3. great post; it’s sad when the parents don’t back the teacher, and when the teacher is at a loss for ways to discipline a surly student. once long ago i sent a note to the elementary school headmaster, “these students never give me trouble: x, y, and z….. these students normally don’t give me trouble, but did today: i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r,s, t, u, v, w… .. these students give me problems every week: f, g and h”

    it’s never seemed fair to punish an entire class for unruly behavior from a few, but if they’re allowed to continue, it becomes infectious.

    i liked btg’s suggestion of having the child talk to the coach and asking what can be done to get more playing time… today’s youth need more mentors to teach them the art of speaking up without speaking out.


  4. I know there are plenty of entitled kids in the world, but the type of “coaching” that this man did was way beyond a response to frustration. The boys are much bigger than him and the assistant coach, yet they were submissive and took the abuse. Kids gifted in athletic ability are often bullied in this manner from the time they are little, by their coaches and more often than not by their parents. They are under intense pressure to perform.

    We were involved in Little League with my son and daughter, where the behavior of the parents was shocking. Not only did they exhibit unsportsmanlike behavior in yelling at coaches and umps, some also verbally assaulted their own children. I saw one parent grab his son by the arms and shake him so hard I bet his teeth rattled, over striking out. It was far worse on the boys’ team than on the girls’. My daughter loved playing. My son hated it and has sworn off of team sports. It just wasn’t fun, even at the Little League level.

    Parents are part of the problem, yes. But I think it is because they allow this type of treatment in the hopes of a free ride through college and a possible shot at the pros, and because of their own fierce competitiveness and pride. Kids play past their own endurance, get horribly injured, will PLAY injured, to please their coaches and parents. They do so much damage to their bodies, often permanent, sometimes life-threatening, for the sake of a game. I don’t think they are the entitled ones in this situation.

    • Thanks for the good comments. There’s no doubt the coaches were dead wrong in this case. I simply wanted to explore the other side of the question. There are more and more spoiled young people out there who simply expect to have things handed to them. I saw it close up during my 41 years of college teaching and coaching.


      • I don’t disagree with you on that. I know people who have never grown up, because their parents never taught them how to function in the real world. It’s sad.

        Do you think, going beyond sports, that our society is in part to blame as well? We are conditioned to consume, to demand luxury even if we can’t afford it, live beyond our means, and live on credit. When our country goes to war, we are not asked to sacrifice or cut back; we are told to go shopping. Christmas, even Easter, are nothing more than disgusting displays of over-consumption and human greed. I think as a nation we are spoiled, entitled brats with no empathy for the less fortunate, how else to explain the popularity of Objectivism and the demonization of the poor as parasites? How can we expect the growing minds of children to resist the effects of such excess and callousness?

        I don’t mean to write a mini-blog here, but your post got me thinking about the bigger picture. Apologies:)

      • I am delighted that my blog engendered thought! That’s my goal and I do believe we live in a narcissistic culture, as you suggest, and the problems are not restricted to athletics and the schools.


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