- Cullman, Alabama


April 5, 2013

COMMENTARY: Slate - The basketball bully


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.

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