By Emily Bazelon
— The firing Wednesday of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, for shoving players around, firing basketballs at them and screaming that they were "faggots" and "fairies," reflects universal condemnation. Once ESPN aired a video showing Rice's abusive style during practice, players, sportswriters and even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rose up. As NBA star LeBron James tweeted, "If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I'm still gone whoop on him afterwards! C'mon."
Rice always acted like a jerk on the sidelines — yelling at his players and at the refs and generally behaving like a jackass. But while that behavior had long been tolerated if not celebrated, his off-court actions clearly crossed the line of acceptability. Rice himself told reporters gathered outside his home, "I will at some time, maybe I'll try to explain it, but right now, there's no explanation for what's on those films. Because there is no excuse for it. I was wrong. I want to tell everybody who's believed in me that I'm deeply sorry." Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti is facing calls for his own firing because he saw video of Rice abusing players and shouting slurs before it went public and yet suspended the men's coach for only three games. The Newark Star-Ledger reported as far back as December that "an internal investigation" found Rice had used slurs and thrown the ball at players' heads.
In other words, the authorities knew, and they didn't stop it, not until denunciations came raining down from outside the school's gates. Is this how it has to be — a clearly abusive coach only gets fired when his transgressions get aired on television?
If you look at the history of coaches accused of this kind of abuse — and especially what it took for Indiana University to fire the famously temper-ridden, player-choking Bobby Knight — it seems that coaches can get away with way too much for way too long.
"I was like in total shock that this guy wasn't fired — immediately, on the spot," said Eric Murdock, the former NBA player Rice hired as director of player development in 2010 who says he went to the athletic director about Rice's conduct last summer. (And who Rutgers let go last June, for reasons Murdock and the school dispute — Pernetti says "insubordination." Murdock is planning to sue the school for wrongful termination.)
One major difference between Knight and Rice is their win-loss records — Rice didn't have a winning season in his three years at Rutgers, which must have made him easier to cut loose. But I'd like to think it also matters that the Knight saga played out more than a decade ago. Today, we're in the middle of a cultural shift in how we think about bullying and about cruel aggression as a motivator. It's becoming increasingly clear that schools and teams are not supposed to stand for abusive bullying, even from coaches who say it's all about intensity, passion, and competition. We're less swayed by the old assumption that no one should mess with a tough coach, that players have to take whatever comes their way, and if they can't, they just can't hack it.
The shift starts with parents' concerns about how bullying by coaches affects younger players. College and pro coaches set the tone for their counterparts at the high school and grade school level. Susan Swearer, a research psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln points out the obvious when she says, "Coaches have a lot of power." Swearer says she regularly gets emails from parents who worry that their kids' coaches are going beyond healthy competition into the realm of cruelty. In my book on bullying, "Sticks and Stones," Swearer helped me answer this question: "What should I do about a teacher or a coach who is acting like a bully?" We suggested starting by keeping a log and getting other concerned parents together to go to whoever is in charge. We also advised parents to "help kids assert their own authority by reminding them that no one can make them feel inferior without their consent," a sentiment attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt.
One of Rice's former players, Gilvydas Biruta, told ESPN.com's Don Van Natta Jr. that he left Rutgers "because of the way [Rice] was leading the team." (The videos show Rice pushing Biruta, berating him, and throwing a ball that hits him in the knee.) More telling is that six current and former players said "they found no problem with Rice's coaching techniques." Player Tyree Graham told Van Natta that "he understood why Rice used those tactics, because people 'disrespected' Rutgers in the Big East and he wanted to simulate opponents' disrespectful attitudes during practice."
The reactions of the Rutgers players aren't surprising. In February, Cal basketball coach Mike Montgomery shoved star player Allen Crabbe during a game. Montgomery expressed remorse, and he wasn't suspended. Crabbe said after the game it was "under the bridge," though his mother wasn't as forgiving, saying, "I'm probably having a hard time putting it behind me." Morehead State coach Sean Woods also shoved a player during a game, and the school suspended him for one game. Woods at first said he was just doing his job then later acknowledged that his behavior "was inappropriate and unacceptable." One player, whose shirt Woods had pulled, said he liked playing for him. "I had a strong connection with him," Luka Pajkovic said at the time. "What happened the other night, that's nothing. That's the way he coaches." He added, "He was on me the whole year. . . . He expected a lot from me and that's why he does that, to get you motivated."
Maybe the lesson here is that coaches who get in players' faces need to be warned, even if schools shouldn't make physical contact with players the basis of a zero-tolerance policy. Bullying coaches may not be widely tolerated, but as the reaction of the six Rutgers players sticking up for Rice shows, they still have their supporters. Context matters, especially a coach's relationship with his or her players. In one 1989 study of authoritarian and democratic coaching styles, neither type prevailed. The authors suggested that "the most successful coach may be especially effective when she or he correctly adapts to the needs of particular players and situations, sometimes being demanding, other times supportive. The unsuccessful coach may be the most unyielding or the one least adept at knowing when a change is required." In other words, as Slate writer Byron Boneparth points out, "good coaches are flexible and responsive (maybe)."
A more recent study, from 2011, asked college athletes which type of coach they preferred. The researchers concluded that athletes who were highly self-motivated, or had anxiety about pain, preferred coaches who led democratically. But the athletes with less self-motivation wanted "autocratic" coaches "who provided high amounts of punishment-oriented feedback." That doesn't mean they wanted a basketball thrown at their heads. But it could help explain Luka Pajkovic's feelings about Coach Woods — that he ranted and raved because he cared, and "he expected a lot from me."
In her new memoir, legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt says that she rode her players less as she matured. She came to understand that there was such a thing as too tough, for the team's sake and for the individual development of her players, as athletes and as human beings. But Summitt doesn't say she turned gentle and soft-spoken. It sounds like she remained a hard ass. She just made sure not to be a bully, not to push or manipulate beyond a particular player's limits. That's the right line to draw. Mike Rice was obviously on the wrong side of that line, and his firing helps mark it.
Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her new book is "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character." Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.