How is it that a coach entrusted with the well-being and development of a team of exceptional athletes could stoop to abusing them the way fired Rutgers men’s basketball Mike Rice did?
Certainly, such abuse is not unprecedented (see: Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes).
But Rice was a relatively new coach at Rutgers, and certainly not one in whom Rutgers had the kind of deep institutional investment that an Indiana University had in Knight or an Ohio State had in Hayes. (According to Business Insider, Knight, who is now an ESPN commentator, is refusing to talk about the Rice scandal. Too bad. He might have offered some insight about why he abused his players and what he learned from being fired for it.)
Rice was fired this week. And there were reports Friday that Rutgers’ athletic director, Tim Pernetti, was also out.
To get some insight, I called Mitch Abrams, a New Jersey sports psychologist who is one of the few experts on coaching violence.
“Mike Rice’s behavior is deplorable, no excuse,” Abrams said. “But if we are going to be helpful, rather than tar and feather him, the question is how do we understand the explanation for why this happened?”
Abrams sees two issues at play -- the glorification of the sports star, athlete or coach, and the scarcity of coaching instruction.
“We deify sports-related people, and invest them with the belief that they have powers beyond what they have authority for.” He can’t think of any parent who could bear to watch the Rice practice videos, in which he slapped and grabbed and humiliated his players. “But I also know parents who say all the time, Doc, if I pull my kid from here, it’s going to significantly hurt their athletic career.” Abrams said he asks those parents: “‘Is being an athlete more important than being a human being?’”
The second issue, coaching skill, seems like it would be easier to fix. As it turns out, screaming and hitting don’t work, either in the home or on the playing field.
“People are finally starting to realize the value of John Wooden and Phil Jackson,” said Abrams, two coaches separated by many years, but whose styles of coaching inspired their players to great heights. “That’s way overdue. The trend is starting to go in that direction, but there are still dinosaurs out there who believe this is the right way to do things. And when you have someone like Bobby Knight, there is some historical precedence for it.”
When I told Abrams that Rice reminded me of an abusive father who was battering his children, he said he thought I was off the mark, although he agreed the players did exhibit some signs common in abuse victims -- a relationship power differential that leads to the passivity that experts call “learned helplessness.”
Still, he said, “I think what you saw was a frustrated teacher. He’s trying to teach his players positioning and stuff and they’re not going where he wants them to go. He’s throwing the ball, and ridiculing them, which makes them less responsive.
“Sports is all about resilience and dealing with frustration,” he said. “If you as a coach cannot deal with frustration, what do you expect your athletes to do when they are frustrated? I would never ask a coach not to be angry, because that would be asking him to not human. Anger can help performance if you know how to use it. If you don’t, you are gonna have to find another line of work.”