I am the father of two boys, aged 3 and 5, whom I’m actually quite fond of. That’s despite their, shall we say, unpredictable behavior, which can range from angelic to beyond maddening, and I’m being generous. Like one time when they older decided to cover the younger in shampoo, despite not being in the shower. And when these things happen, you try not to lose your cool, which is like trying not to break 55 on a highway in the desert. Sometimes you even say a few words you might regret, like words you can’t say on public radio but your kids manage to repeat in public at remarkably inopportune moments.
And there are those tired moments, after hours of angst and fatigue and good parenting, when in the dark guilty recesses of your mind you feel like you actually might hit your kid. You never do, of course, because that’s not what an adult does to a child. So you walk away for a second, or maybe you try some other way to calm everyone down, or maybe you just hope it passes. Because that’s what being a parent or teacher or child-care provider is all about. Survive and advance, like the NCAA tournament.
I would never want Mike Rice to watch my kids. Of course he won’t, any more than Lindsay Lohan might mow my lawn. But still, I wouldn’t want it. I wouldn’t want him to coach my kids either, a distant but still more likely scenario. It’s less likely today than yesterday, since he’s just been fired as the head men’s basketball coach at Rutgers after a relatively short and unremarkable run at a school that rarely contends for anything beyond mediocrity in the sport. But he wasn’t fired for losing. He was fired because of a pattern of physically and verbally abusing his players during practice. This included throwing balls at them, grabbing them violently by the shirt, and yelling homophobic slurs. Allegedly, this was to try and make them better at basketball.
For that, Rice was suspended for three games and $50,000 last season. We didn’t know why at the time, but now that we do, a lot of us are left wondering why he wasn’t fired back then. And now, why the athletic director in charge isn’t fired today. It’s an unflattering portrayal of an athletic department that’s cost its university millions in net losses the past several years amidst serious cuts in educational spending. And if those losses were supposed to be buying the positive PR of big time sports, well, state of New Jersey residents might want to consider an exchange.
It’s easy and simple to note that coaches shouldn’t hit athletes, and they shouldn’t use homophobic slurs as motivational speech. That’s like saying that airline pilots shouldn’t get high before going to work. We know that. And it’s also easy to suggest that senior administrators need to have greater accountability for their programs and personnel, and that goes for the college president as well, who signed off on the original suspension.
What’s under the surface here, though, is that big time college athletics needs to reevaluate the power it vests into its coaches. Over the course of the past couple weeks, a formerly small time coach parleyed two wins into a million dollar pay-out, another broke a freshly inked contract for one school to get more at another, and a coach in upstate New York is about to get his school on probation for breaking rules not even imagined yet. And meanwhile, the workforce underneath, the athletes, gets nary a dime for helping superstar coaches get rich and build empires. In a study put out by the Marist Center for Sports Communication and the Marist Poll last week, nearly half of sports fans think top college coaches should be paid as more or more than pro coaches. I’m not sure of the textbook definition of entitlement when it comes to sports, but I’d say this should be it.
The problem isn’t just that Mike Rice hit a bunch of college kids at practice, a practice that they were bound to for fear of losing their scholarships. It’s that we’ve created a system that lets this happen, at our places of higher learning, no less. Where ethics and accountability are supposedly big ticket items. The kinds of things we’d like taught to our kids, even during sports practices, like the one held by now former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice.
Then again, when it comes to my kids, I’d rather them stay away from Rice’s practices altogether.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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