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Viral video should put all US college coaches in the spotlight

If athletes can be randomly tested for drugs, coaches should be randomly recorded for possible acts of abuse.

Last Modified: 13 Apr 2013 11:11
Caryn Brooks

Caryn Brooks is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School.
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"There is a difference between motivating athletes with tough words meant to fire them up and abusing them with angry words meant to tear them down," writes Brooks [AP]

The world is watching and the view of American collegiate sports is not pretty right now. 

The video of Mike Rice, who was fired as Rutgers men's basketball coach on Wednesday - April 10 - pushing, shoving and throwing basketballs at his players has gone viral. People around the world are hearing for the first time the angry, hateful, homophobic slurs he threw in their faces. 

Rutgers University President Robert L Barchi said in a statement on the school's website that the video "shows a chronic and pervasive pattern of disturbing behaviour". Disturbing behaviour is the least of it. It is abusive, plain and simple. And it is not the norm. 

As a mother of three athletes, I have seen many coaches over the years, at all levels and in different sports from youth sports through college. My sons all love sports - wrestling and football especially - and I have always felt fortunate that most of those coaches were significant parts of my sons' lives. Certainly, a few of them have helped shape the people my sons have become. 

So when the Rice story broke I called my oldest son, Max. He was a wrestler and football player in high school and played NCAA Division III football in college at Illinois Wesleyan University. I asked him about Rice. Had he seen the video? What did he think? 

Of course, he thought Rice's actions were out of line. Of course, he said no coach should treat his players that way - what upset him most was the language and the screaming. More than the physicality, it was the anger, which was clearly meant to be hurtful, rather than motivating, that bothered him. He said in all his years of organised sports he was never screamed at by a coach. 

I wondered how that could be true. I have seen all of his coaches in stressful situations. Not all of them, but many are passionate people who make their point with the volume level on high. But there is a difference between motivating athletes with tough words meant to fire them up and abusing them with angry words meant to tear them down. He has always played for the former rather than the latter, including in college. 

His college football coach at IWU, Norm Eash, has 25 years on the job. He has coached seven College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin championship teams; four NCAA Division III playoff teams; eight first team Division III All-Americans; eight Academic All-Americans; and one winner of the Gagliardi Trophy honouring the nation's top Division III player, according to the school's website. 

"The best coaches know they can't be an athlete's friend, can't coddle their athletes, but have to be on their side and sometimes that means helping them get tougher mentally and physically."

But that is not what's impressive about Eash and his athletes. They all have fun. Win or lose, the athletes have perspective; the sting of a loss is quick and the joy of victory fades fast too. Eash is neither flashy nor fiery. To his credit he is even-keeled and consistent. 

Of course, every coach in the NCAA is not Norm Eash and every athlete does not have a great experience. My middle son, Ben, wrestled at the University of North Carolina for one season. It was not a good fit and he did not stay, but he never said he felt abused. 

And Eash coaches in Division III, which less stressful and pressure-filled than Division I, especially in high profile sports such as football and basketball.  

My youngest son, Sam, is a member of one of the highest profile Division I wrestling teams in the country at the University of Iowa. His coaches spend countless hours with their athletes and have been known to jump out of their chairs during a match and vigorously make a point to a referee, but that's as far as it goes. I don't know what goes on in the locker room or at practice, but I see that my son is happy and thriving. That's a credit to his coaches, Tom Brands, Terry Brands, Kurt Backes, Ryan Morningstar, Luke Eustice and Luke Lofthouse. 

My sons agree the best coaches know they can't be an athlete's friend, can't coddle their athletes, but have to be on their side and sometimes that means helping them get tougher mentally and physically. But they know the difference between that and abuse. One now-former college coach didn't. 

Schools need to have a zero tolerance approach. Administrators need to know what's happening on their teams and with their coaches and be held responsible when they don't. And athletes need to feel free to speak up. 

Certainly, Mike Rice is not the first coach to verbally abuse or humiliate players. Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight became the cautionary tale for winning at all costs. 

Rice behaved badly, and it only came to light because someone caught it on video. If the athletes can be randomly tested for drugs, the coaches should be randomly recorded for possible acts of abuse. 

One young athlete humiliated by a raging coach is too many.

Caryn Brooks is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School. 

Follow her on Twitter: @carynwardbrooks

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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