ABUSIVE COACHES: What Parents Should Learn from Rutgers/Mike Rice

By Dan Venezia (Posted on AskCoachWolff.com on April 12, 2013)

When any of us, as a parent, sends a child to college with the expectation that the child will participate in varsity athletics, the college is taking the child on loan. The college and the athletic coach share an obligation and a responsibility to ensure that the child is in a safe and nurturing environment.

Many, and probably most, college students are away from home for the first time. If the college coach cares for team members as human beings first and athletes second, it’s probably safe to say that those players are in good hands. A good coach will treat players with respect and, ideally, affection. The coach should: motivate the players to work harder; set goals; and design strategies to improve skills that will work effectively, not only on the athletic field, but in the classroom as well. We know that those skills have a carryover effect and will have practical use in the workplace, at home, and in the community.

However, when the coach physically and mentally abuses athletes the way Mike Rice allegedly treated his basketball team, the “borrowed” children almost certainly will suffer severe consequences. We know from experience that children often emulate the behavior that’s in front of them. Unfortunately, many likely will become part of a vicious cycle of abuse begetting abuse down through generations.

An NBA player would not allow his coach to kick or shove him. As bad as many of the youth coaches are, I don’t believe we would allow a youth basketball coach to throw basketballs at our children’s heads or verbally abuse them with homophobic slurs. However, we seem to give high school and college coaches a lot of slack. For some reason, we seem to believe that the coach knows best when it comes to our teenage children. In our effort to prepare our children for the real world, we give these coaches too much authority.

Unfortunately, some of them abuse their power. Teenage children, or even 20 or 21 year-old Juniors or Seniors, are likely to be afraid to speak up when the coach crosses the line. They don’t want to stand up to an authority figure, particularly one who has the backing of a large and powerful institution. They are afraid to be ostracized among their peers, they fear losing playing time, and they are petrified of losing their scholarships. The result: they play scared and they get scarred.

There is a better way to coach and mentor our children. Players play better when they respect their coach. How can a coach gain that respect through physical and mental abuse? John Wooden didn’t throw balls at, kick, or shove his players and they loved and respected him. Although cause and effect may not be demonstrable, it is likely that his relationship with his players helped his teams achieve 10 national championships, including 7 in a row, in his 27 years as head coach of UCLA. He may have turned out some professional players along the way, but, more importantly, he undoubtedly helped create many quality human beings.

I hope the Rice incident is a wakeup call for colleges, high schools, and our youth athletic leagues. We all can do better. Universities have to be more careful when hiring coaches. Coaches have to realize that, while they are trying to build a championship team, they should be building, not destroying, the players’ characters.

Finally, parents must teach their young children to speak up when they are being treated poorly, even if that treatment is coming from an adult. This will go a long way towards ensuring that our children will be returned in better shape, both physically and mentally, than when we dropped them off.