The college basketball coach who sparked national outrage for his mistreatment of players was fired Wednesday.
The scenes of Rutgers coach Mike Rice shoving, kicking and throwing basketballs at players and screaming obscenities and gay slurs at them prompted immediate rebuke from the public in social media and other forums. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized Rice, prompting Rutgers, a state university, to dismiss the coach, reversing an initial three-game suspension handed down in November.
But what may seem even more stunning is that those familiar with the sport say it’s not surprising that Rice wasn’t challenged by his players. A former player and several psychologists who spoke with The Star on Wednesday said the current culture of college athletics lends opportunity for coaches to abuse their power.
“I was so livid when I saw that (video), but this would be easy to replicate, unfortunately,” said former Kansas basketball player Ryan Robertson. “The players won’t say anything because they are powerless — you have no authority whatsoever. You are at the total discretion of the coach because how much you play and your success and failure depends on him.”
Beyond that, Robertson continued, players view coaches as authoritative figures — sometimes even heroes.
The abuse only came to light after a former Rutgers assistant coach gave video of Rice’s practices to the school’s athletic director last year. The video was released to the public Tuesday.
“When Coach (Roy) Williams said something to me or the team, you took it as gospel,” said Robertson, who played for Williams at KU from 1996 to 1999. “As far as we were concerned, we did exactly what he told us to do. When someone is level-headed like Coach Williams, that’s fine. But the problem is when you’re a raging lunatic, those lines get really blurred and it’s tough for a player to decipher.”
According to sports psychologists, that’s a typical outlook for college athletes intent on impressing their coaches.
Such a mindset creates a relationship in which the coaches are given power that stretches beyond the basketball arena into everyday life, according to Patrick Cohn, a sports psychology expert at Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Fla. When coaches impose curfews, social media rules and other restrictions on athletes’ behavior, Cohn said, players begin to consider their coaches as parental authority figures. And that causes a troubling dynamic when coaches begin to cross the line.
“The coach has a lot of control — probably too much control,” Cohn said. “Once that athlete sets foot on campus, (coaches are) in complete control, which sets up these types of scenarios like (the one) at Rutgers. The players become acclimated to the coach’s role, for better or worse.”
Rice wasn’t the first college basketball coach to face abuse allegations this season. Billy Gillispie cited health concerns when he stepped down at Texas Tech on Sept. 20, 2012, but allegations surfaced that he had mistreated players since taking over the program the previous year.
After the 2009 football season, KU’s Mark Mangino resigned under pressure and Texas Tech’s Mike Leach was fired after allegations of player mistreatment.
Mangino led the Jayhawks to the 2008 Orange Bowl title, but athletic director Lew Perkins launched an internal investigation into Mangino’s treatment of players midway through the 2009 season, which KU finished at 5-7. Mangino returned to coaching this year as associate head coach at Youngstown State.
At Texas Tech, Red Raiders tight end Adam James, son of former television analyst Craig James, had suffered a concussion, couldn’t practice and was told to stand in an equipment room near the practice facility. Leach was told by the school to issue an apology. He didn’t and was fired.
Over time, says Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist in Fords, N.J., who specializes in anger management, players can begin to accept inappropriate behavior as appropriate.
Abrams compared the situation at Rutgers to that of a domestic violence case.
“There’s a fear parallel between the two,” Abrams said. “As is the case with instances of domestic violence, those kids develop a learned helplessness. They’re stuck and they accept it. I watched the video, and I didn’t see any of the athletes fight back. That was pretty alarming to me.”
So what’s the solution? Well, that depends on whom you ask.
Heather Barber, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire who has studied behavior in sports, has advocated for coaches to go through training sessions to learn how to interact with players, assistants and even parents. Barber further looks to athletic directors to take on more responsibility to provide checks and balances by observing practices regularly.
At Rutgers, athletic director Tim Pernetti was given a video in November that was compiled by a former employee. The video showed clips of practices during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. After viewing the video, Pernetti suspended Rice for three games in December, fined him $75,000 and ordered him to attend anger-management classes.
The video became public Tuesday, when it was shown to reporters by the school in advance of an upcoming ESPN broadcast, and Pernetti stood by his decision to suspend Rice. In a news release Wednesday, Rutgers referred to new information and “a review of previously discovered issues” as the reasons for Rice’s termination.
“I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice,” Pernetti said. “Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community.”
Rice was hired in the spring of 2010 after three seasons at Robert Morris. In his three seasons at Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights went 44-51 and compiled only a 16-38 mark in the Big East Conference.
Abrams said the trio of losing seasons is no coincidence.
“If we would counsel these coaches, and show them right and wrong, they would learn that behind the moral inadequacies, this isn’t an effective coaching method,” Abrams said. “You don’t have to announce your power difference and make people feel like crap. When players are afraid of coaches, the coaches are much less likely to be effective.”