The Moment: Cruel coaching

The Moment is a new ESPN.com basketball series about points in time that reveal a lot about the game.

Rutgers University Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Rice watches a player come out of his defense stance, throws a ball at the players feet, then flies in and violently pushes him. The player hangs his head as Rice strings together obscenities, showing him the right way defend while emasculating him in front of his teammates.

This moment matters, not because it crosses the line of appropriate coaching, but because it blurs it. Rice’s gay slurs and kicking of players were horrendous and exceptional -- but this specific incident shows that lesser levels of abuse were also a routine part of his teaching style.

Watch the player’s body language. He knows he is in trouble. This has happened before. The player slouches, prepared to be berated. Rice “shows him how to play defense” by hitting him. The player is helpless to stand up for himself and is pushed out of the way.

This is not an anger issue -- it’s a cultural one. This is what passes for coaching at the collegiate level; types of behavior that no other member of a university faculty could possibly get away with.

Rice was fired not because he lost his temper but because the public finally was able to peek under the hood of collegiate coaching. It is sadly recognizable for those of us who played competitive sports, and shocking for many who didn’t. I played collegiate basketball, had teammates compete across the country and have mentored players since I stopped playing. This is our common experience. We’re often ashamed and angry at the way we’ve been treated. We were cursed at, physically intimidated and threatened for years.

For athletes in a macho culture, it’s hard to admit how much it hurt us.

When I work with young players now, the first thing I tell them is that it’s not “soft” to be frustrated when a coach treats you poorly. It’s not your fault that coaches think screaming, intimidating and punishing students are acceptable ways to get you to play hard. That type of behavior is not just a Mike Rice problem, it’s a sports problem.

As an academic, I say with confidence that coaches treat student-athletes in a manner that would never be permitted by anyone else on campus. There is a chasm between what is expected of professors and coaches. If one of my students came into my office to talk about a paper, and in an attempt to motivate him, I repeatedly called him some of the filthiest words in the English language, as Rice did (and coaches all across the country routinely do), would it be appropriate? If a student showed up five minutes late for class and I told him to return the next day at six in the morning, forcing him to run until he fell to the floor puking, would I still have a job the following week?

Of course not.

And yet these actions are everyday occurrences in university and high school programs. Yes, Rice took them farther than the average coach. But his transgression was not simply losing his temper a few times. He created an hostile atmosphere for his players in which they feared him because of his physical and verbal outbursts and intimidation. This, sadly, is not rare. Coaches routinely embarrass their players, crudely mock them, shout obscenities at them, then make them run excessively (to punish players and control them, not to improve conditioning) for perceived transgressions on and off the court. Players fear their coaches, while coaches lord their authority over players’ athletic dreams and day-to-day lives.

Collegiate coaches can get away with abuse because they have all the leverage. Student-athletes have limited eligibility and rules making it very hard to switch schools. Often there is no good outlet for their concerns in the institution. In other words, they are completely at the mercy of their college coaches. These students deserve the same dignity, patience and mentorship that universities strive so hard to provide off the court. So why do we allow coaches to wield power over students in such ugly ways?

In this, no one's hands are clean. Not the NCAA which has a rule structure which makes it hard for athletes to leave abusive situations without sacrificing eligibility; not the institutions, which allow coaches to behave in ways faculty never could; and certainly not the coaches themselves.

And that's why the real scandal is not just Rice’s caught-on-video moment. While awful and extreme, this is not an isolated incident nor a single bad apple. It is indicative of a wider sports culture that allows coaches to routinely verbally abuse their players and physically intimidate them. We need to decide whether behavior that would result in firings anywhere else at a university is acceptable on the practice court.

Dr. Stephen Danley will begin as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers-Camden University in the fall of 2013. He is a Marshall Scholar and Oxford graduate who played basketball for the University of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2007. His twitter handle is @SteveDanley.