Wrong move to fire bullying coach

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by Roxanne Jones

(CNN) — Sports are not pretty.

And firing Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice will not take the brutality out of college sports. It does not change a thing. Even in these politically correct times, the essence of sport will always lie in the Neanderthal within us all.

Watching the video of Rice batter and berate his players, I recalled the dozens of other times I’d witnessed similar scenes, at my son’s Amateur Athletic Union games, at playground pick-up games.

And I thought immediately of watching coaches like Bobby Knight and P.J. Carlesimo.

The video highlights are not easy to watch, but they do not tell the whole story.

“Yes he went overboard. But you can’t get a good feeling for what went down by seeing highlights on ESPN. No one was scared of Coach Rice. We didn’t fear him. We just understood him,” Mike Coburn, who played for Rice from 2010-11, told New Jersey’s Star Ledger.

Indeed, the world today is in a better, more enlightened place, where it’s not nice to call people obscene or homophobic names. Where slapping people upside the head, beaning them with a basketball or giving them a swift kick in the rear is not considered the best motivational tactic. But the sports nation has not quite caught up with the rest of this kinder, gentler world. Frankly, I don’t think it should — not completely anyway.

That may be hard to understand for some people. But no one who has been up close to sports can honestly be shocked by Rice’s coaching techniques. He is not an anomaly — especially in the win-at-all-costs, big-money world of college sports. He just got caught on video, and we must react. We can debate whether bully-coaching is an effective motivational tool. But there’s no debate that it is practiced throughout sports, from Little League on up.

For most fans, sports are a feel-good experience that teaches life lessons: how to lead, how to lose, how to push yourself to your highest potential. I watched in amazement as my son evolved from a shy, awkward, oversized boy to a strong, confident leader. The change began when he fell in love with basketball at a young age. Did he have tyrannical coaches? Yes, one.

His AAU coach was a terror. Yelling the entire practice, he often degraded his 10-year-old boys. He told them they were nothings, just little black boys who would probably end up dead or in prison before 21. He screamed, eyes bulging, that without basketball they’d be nothing. He shoved them, when he thought no one was looking. And who knows what he said to his team when parents weren’t within listening distance. So, his father and I always stayed close by, just in case things got out of hand.

My son thought his coach was weird and angry. Many of the kids on the team were private-school, college-bound black boys. Didn’t matter. Coach was still stereotyping them. For Coach, it was a rough, racist world and the boys might as well toughen up early.

His team got blown out every game, but my son never wanted to quit. I remember asking a few of the pro athletes I worked with if I should take my son off the team. They said “absolutely not.” It would be a good lesson for my son.

“You play the game for love of the game, you will not love all of your coaches,” one Hall-of-Famer told me.

Turns out, they had all experienced a Bobby Knight type of coach. A Mike Rice. And the athletes argued that it was important for a young man to learn not to let a bully coach like that break you. They said it was their worst coaches who prepared them for the bullies they met later in life, on the court and in their corporate offices.

Rice never pretended to be a gentle leader. It was his brutal passion for the game, in part, that led Rutgers University’s Athletic Director Tim Pernetti to hire Rice to coach the Scarlet Knights.

“I knew exactly what I was getting and I still know what I’ve got,” Pernetti said when he hired Rice. “Mike coaches with an edge. That personality is ideal for our program here in New Jersey.”

D-1 basketball is big time. Rice and his team were under pressure to produce wins and prove they belonged in the big leagues. That’s why Rice wasn’t fired when the video was first shown to the athletic director. He was suspended for three games and fined $50,000.

But the story didn’t end there. It took the threat of a wrongful termination lawsuit by Eric Murdock, an ex-NBA player and a former director of player development for the Scarlet Knights, who complained to Pernetti about Rice’s outrageous behavior. Murdock got fired for his concerns, according to his attorney, Raj Gadhok.

Then the video was released to the media. The school decided the story was just too hot to explain — best to dump the coach and avoid a public relations mess. It was a knee-jerk solution, a marketing move.

But don’t think for one minute that Rice won’t find a way to rehabilitate his reputation. He’ll go to anger management classes. His peers will say he’s a changed man. He’ll show remorse to the media. Then he’ll be back coaching in the college game in no time at all.

Brutes will always have a seat at the sports table.

Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

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