George Karl and the cult of coach

Illustration by Mark Smith

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The recent furor caused by George Karl takes me back to a moment I've mentioned in this column before: the night at the 2008 MLB winter meetings in Las Vegas when I had a drink with Dusty Baker, whose stories are so rich you could feel a memoir living in between each sip of scotch. "I'll never write a book," Baker told me. "First, because I wouldn't write a book that wasn't the truth. Secondly, because I wouldn't want to say in public all the things that I believe to be true."

The world is a lesser place for not knowing what Dusty Baker knows. In the case of Karl, the world is not a better place because of his book "Furious George," but it is, cynically, a more knowledgeable one.

Karl has apologized for the way he phrased some things in the book, particularly the insulting thoughts he offered on the development of players who grew up in fatherless families. But if the only takeaway from the memoir's publication was confirmation of why so many of his former players couldn't stand him, that would represent a small harvest. However, the real, significant value of the book is that it accidentally exposes how the cult of the coach is one of the great frauds of American team sports.

The sports machine comprises an inarguable racial and class apparatus: white owners, white coaches, white media, white season-ticket holders and black players. The NBA is one of the more fascinating work environments because while it is composed of a predominantly black workforce, it is a workforce of enormous clout -- in most cases, it has far more power than the coach, who in virtually all cases is easily more replaceable than LeBron James.

These great molders of men, as Karl has proved by his own considerable limitations, are sadly just men themselves. Most are ordinary, many less than that. Few are remarkable-yet so many are revered as if they were John Wooden. Coaches profit from a sports culture that, through its own customs and media narrative, begins to deify them as father figures at the youth and high school levels. That narrative is fortified through a runaway, unaccountable college system that affords coaches enormous power and money at the expense of taxpayers and their own players, and it lasts all the way to the professional ranks.

The result is a circle of overpaid overseers extracting revenue from a largely black workforce, the worst of whom turn out like Karl, coaches who resent that workforce and show little regard for the poverty or fatherless homes its members may have experienced-but who have no problem keeping the money.

Predictably, Karl's book was unceremoniously received by NBA players -- especially Kenyon Martin, who played under Karl in Denver and tweeted, "I didn't have a father going up. We all know that. What's George Karl excuse for being a terrible person." The controversy was still swirling when Clemson beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, whose base salary is $4.6 million, earned an extra $1.4 million by winning the title, according to Forbes. Tide coach Nick Saban is the second-highest-paid public employee in America at $7 million, according to USA Today. Michigan's Jim Harbaugh is the highest paid at $9 million. These coaches, along with so many of their college brethren, earn millions off young athletes, yet they confront the issue of compensating those athletes as if it were the most complicated moral question in man's long history. As Swinney said in 2014: "As far as paying players, professionalizing college athletics, that's where you lose me. I'll go do something else, because there's enough entitlement in this world as it is."

The truth is so much easier: Coaches benefit from the status quo, which makes them potential mercenaries as much as potential mentors. Coaches also profit from the fiction that their presence is inherently a force for good, a narrative that ignores the millions of kids who quit sports because of bad coaches.

In return for that profit, coaches should, at the very least, operate with an awareness of their place in the machine and with a compassion for players who have the talent but come from seriously challenging social and economic environments. Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy exemplify this awareness and compassion. Karl clearly does not. Instead, he offers a glimpse into the minds of the coaches who are intolerant of players, their upbringing and, obviously, their power.

If that is the father figure, maybe it's better not to have one.