Look at it this way: if Rutgers coach Mike Rice hadn’t gotten fired last week after ESPN broadcast video of him shoving players, hurling basketballs at them, and screaming that they were “faggots” and worse, he was a good bet to get dumped next year after another losing season.
Given Rice’s 44-51 record after three years at New Jersey’s state university, his tenure there was clearly shaky. Nor would Rutgers’ impending move to the Big Ten have made things easier. All of which may have had much to do with the coach’s overwrought behavior. That’s not an alibi, merely an explanation.
Unlike most college teachers, coaches of the money sports at NCAA Division I schools get evaluated in the most public way possible -- by their students’ performances on national TV. In return, they’re more than amply rewarded. Rice’s yearly salary was $750,000; Tim Pernetti, the athletic director scapegoated for failing to fire him back at the beginning of the basketball season when his transgressions first became known to the Rutgers administration, collected a $1.3 million bonus on his way out the gym door.
But hey, it’s not academia; it’s a combination of showbiz and semi-pro sports. We could all save ourselves a lot of angst by keeping that in mind.
No, universities in other countries don’t function as jock factories. The Sorbonne doesn’t recruit defensive tackles, and the biggest intercollegiate sporting event in Great Britain is a boat race that’s basically an excuse for a garden party.
But that’s how we do it here in the USA, and how we’re going to keep doing it, so you soreheads in the sociology department may as well give it a rest.
As the Rolling Stones once observed in a different context, “I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.” It follows that Rice could have handled his players like a combination of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but one more sub-.500 season and he’d have found himself looking for work at the high school level. Or signing a one-year contract as somebody’s assistant; a second-stringer for life.
Rice had put himself under terrific pressure at Rutgers, and it appears he wasn’t handling it well.
That said, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a guy who knows a lot about yelling, definitely got it right.
“You have lots of successful coaches in this country at the college level who don’t act this way,” he said. “You never hear allegations like this about [Duke] Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski, or about Coach [Bill] Self in Kansas, or about Coach [Roy] Williams in North Carolina -- all who you could say have much higher-pressure programs that they run, with much higher expectations for winning, than Rutgers, yet they don’t conduct themselves like animals.”
No, but you used to hear allegations about Indiana’s Bobby Knight, today an avuncular presence in the broadcast booth. Famous for his volcanic temper and his fierce loyalty to his players — which most reciprocated — Knight survived as long as he did at IU by winning three National Championships, as well as an Olympic Gold Medal.
But he also cursed like a drill instructor’s parrot, threw things, and pitched fearsome temper tantrums. He also ran a clean program, graduated players, and taught some of the game’s most successful coaches — notably Duke’s Krzyzewski.
What I’m leading up to saying here is something I’ve heard a lot of athletes and would-be athletes like me say in the wake of the Rutgers revelations: that given all the hubbub, we expected the videos to be far more disturbing. Back in high school, I’d actually secured standing permission from my father to hit my basketball coach back. Just out of college, our coach used to scrimmage with us and play dirty. It seemed to me that I was his special target.
When I eventually did throw an elbow at his ear, the coach stopped play and congratulated me for showing some fight. His perception was that I was coasting on the court and in the classroom, selling myself short by refusing to go all-out. I’ll spare you the self-analysis, but basically he was right.
There was no miraculous transformation. I wasn’t going to be an all-state athlete anyway. But he definitely got my attention in a way that I’ve never forgotten.
So anyway, let’s keep things in perspective; these things happened in the gym, not the library. The wonder to me as a Rutgers alumnus is that nobody shoved Coach Rice back. These are Jersey boys and Division I athletes. I’d have expected them to show more spunk. Maybe they feared losing their scholarships. For all the hyperbolic rhetoric about “indentured servitude,” being a college basketball player can be an awful lot of fun.
As Rice has himself acknowledged, his bullying, misogyny and homophobia weren’t signs of strength, but of weakness and fear of failure.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at email@example.com.
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