Thursday, April 04, 2013

The Ballad of Mike Rice

I know very little about Mike Rice, other than the fact that he was a very successful basketball coach before he arrived at Rutgers, and that he hasn’t been very successful there. That lack of success is more a commentary on the mediocrity of Rutgers’ athletic programs than on Rice’s coaching ability, but that’s another story entirely.

I do know a few things about sports, though—both playing them and coaching them—and there are some things we should be thinking about when we consider the facts of this case.

I’ve never seen anything like Rice’s video before. In all the time I’ve spent around college sports, although I’ve seen coaches put their hands on players in a not-so-loving manner, I’ve never seen anyone shoved, kicked, or otherwise abused the way Rice’s players were. That approach is completely foreign to me as both an athlete and a coach, and I think it’s reprehensible.

Old-school coaching, at least to a point, is good. It works. College athletics are a royal bitch, and coaches aren’t ever as touchy-feely in practice, in meetings, or in games as they are during the recruiting process when they’re sitting in your living room with your parents telling them how much they care about you as a person. This is total bullshit. Once you’re signed, it’s a major surprise if the head coach even remembers your name—at least until you fuck something up and he humiliates your sorry ass in front of a large group of people.

Even this is perfectly fine. Athletics at this level is a pressurized environment that bears no resemblance to the whole “everybody participates” culture of today’s youth sports, and coaches stay up your ass in this regard in order to build your will and get you to understand that every competitive minute of the next four years is going to be a massive struggle. As an athlete, that’s how you learn about life—and the type of shit that’s waiting for you in the real world, whether you graduate or not. From the coach’s standpoint, he needs to know which players he can depend on, and which he can’t.

Athletes are accustomed to being screamed at. It’s accepted, and you need to develop the ability to deal with it without taking it personally—and this includes a shitload of name-calling. Again, sports are a bitch. What’s happening on the field has little resemblance to what you’re seeing from the stands—i.e., it’s not as easy as they’re making it look. When you’re playing in the NCAA Tournament or a major bowl game, with millions of dollars in revenue at stake, you need to be psychologically prepared for how hard things are going to be—and coaches don’t accomplish that level of preparation by holding your hand and discussing Sarah McLachlan lyrics.

The hitting, kicking, and ball throwing, though? Not so good. I don’t know what Rice was trying to accomplish there, but I can tell you this: As a freshman and sophomore, I would have taken it, keeping my head down and my mouth shut. As a junior, I may—mind you, this is a very tentative may—have mouthed off to a coach who threw a ball at my head. As a senior? Fuck that. Scholarship be damned, they would have had to peel me off the guy just to load him in the ambulance.

As for his word choices, I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here—and issue a bit of a hackneyed disclaimer: I’m okay with the gays. I have gay relatives, I have gay friends, I support gay marriage, and I’ve never had any issue with any of it in my entire life.

I take semantic issue, however, with the use of the term “homophobic” in this case. For the semantic part, the term phobia is defined as an “irrational fear or avoidance” of something. With most people, I think the important part here is irrational avoidance. Although I know such people exist in large numbers, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s literally afraid of homosexuals, so I’m going on the basis of avoidance here rather than fear when we introduce homophobia to the equation.

Growing up, we threw around the word “faggot” liberally before we even knew what homosexuals were, or what was supposedly “deviant” about their lifestyle. To most kids, calling someone a faggot was the same as calling them a pussy. A faggot was someone who lacked skill in sports, chickened out of a fight, or ran home crying when teased.

This mentality, with athletes, continues into adulthood. When you call a lazy basketball player a “faggot,” you’re not saying, “You didn’t set a good enough pick because you prefer same-sex relations as your sexual preference.” What you’re really saying is that the guy has no balls and isn’t working hard enough.

The world is changing—for the better, for a lot of people I care about—and the faster words like faggot become obsolete, the better off we’ll all be, especially since we’re now aware of what a large percentage of the population it offends. Rice should not have used the word. It has no place in a learning environment—whether you think so or not, that’s what a college basketball practice is—at a major state university. No matter how attached he is to his loudmouth youth, a 44-year-old man in a position of authority can’t be calling kids half his age “faggots.”

Still, however, I shrink from the notion of calling this homophobic. Yes, the use of the word is dead-ass wrong, but it’s a stretch to say that Rice is engaging in an “irrational avoidance” of homosexuals. I’m probably taking the etymology of the word a bit too literally here, but I think he’s guilty solely of standard insensitivity and stupidity. This isn’t exactly a hate crime, and dragging his asinine behavior into that realm smacks of phony outrage—at least in terms of my sense of his motivations (which, admittedly, could be incredibly off base).

Those motivations don’t mean shit, though. Wrong is wrong, no matter what the guy was thinking when he said what he did, and I’m not defending him even one iota. The sad part is that he’s probably coached multiple gay players who’ve had to put up with his bullshit. The not-so-sad part is that he’d likely coach several more over the span of his not-going-to-happen career, and those guys won’t have to listen to it.

Regardless, it’s always a good thing when shit like this happens, because this is the only way we’ll learn what not to do, and what we won’t tolerate—especially when it comes to sports, which in the grand scheme isn’t important enough to merit looking past behavior like this. I’ve done my share of coaching, and I think Rice’s behavior was fucking repugnant on every level—including his language. The fact that he wasn’t immediately dismissed is an embarrassment to Rutgers, as is the fact that he’d likely still be employed if none of this had been made public.