Shifting Ground on the Sidelines

January 13, 2010

In the last four weeks, three universities that play big-time football got rid of their coaches after the men were accused of physically or emotionally abusing players. Such incidents are hardly unheard of -- Woody Hayes or Bob Knight, anyone? -- but the fact that these situations unfolded within such a short span of time naturally leads one to ask whether something significant is going on, and if so, what.

Has the pressure on big-time coaches to win made them forget where the lines are between discipline and abuse?

Have players (and their families) grown more willing -- or too quick? -- to complain about tough treatment that would in past years have been swallowed without a word?

Are university administrators becoming more inclined to side with players than with powerful coaches in such situations?

Drawing any sort of overarching and concrete conclusions from three incidents is dangerous, especially when the facts of what unfolded are as disputed and murky as they are, particularly in Texas Tech University's contentious dismissal of Mike Leach.

But interviews with an array of coaching experts, ethicists, and others suggest that something is indeed going on, although opinions about exactly what that is differ widely.

The closest thing to consensus that emerged from these discussions, though, is that this is one of those moments when the ground is beginning to shift under coaches in ways that they have not fully grasped. Increased concern about players’ safety and welfare (especially when it comes to head injuries), parents’ willingness to step in on their children’s behalf, and administrators’ reluctance to stick with coaches even when they’re winning, several of these experts say, are adding up to a change in what’s considered acceptable behavior by coaches.

"These kinds of behaviors have been going on for as long as football has been around," says Greg Dale, a sports psychologist who works for Duke University's athletics department. "But these cases show that coaches are going to be held more accountable than ever about how they discipline athletes, without crossing a line that is much more defined than ever before. Parents are more involved, kids tell their parents -- and the world, through Facebook -- everything, and coaches are under much more scrutiny."

3 Incidents, 3 Departures

The three cases are different, and the facts in all of them have been contested (with two of the dismissals likely to be challenged in court) by the coaches in question:

  • In December, Mark Mangino resigned under pressure from the University of Kansas after an internal investigation found that he had verbally abused players. The inquiry was prompted by the coach's sideline explosion at a player, caught on videotape. Players recounted Mangino regularly berating players for mistakes, telling one he was going to "send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies," and asking another, in front of the team, if he would make something of himself or "become an alcoholic like your dad?" Mangino defended his tactics, saying they were no different from those of his peers. "I have been in this conference for nearly 20 years, and what I can tell you is that our coaching intensity is not largely different from the rest of the Big Eight and Big 12 teams I've observed," he said.
  • Texas Tech suspended and then fired Leach late last month after an investigation into his treatment of an injured player. The case is a mess of disputed facts, complicated by prior tension between Leach and Texas Tech administrators and by the involvement of a high-profile parent -- Craig James, an ESPN football analyst -- reportedly unhappy about his son's lack of playing time. Those complicating factors aside, Leach clearly crossed a line by making James's son, on two occasions, stand in a dark room for hours after the player could not practice because he had suffered a concussion days before. Texas Tech fired him for breaching a clause in his contract that requires coaches to "assure the fair and responsible treatment of student-athletes in relation to their health, welfare and discipline."
  • The University of South Florida on Friday dismissed the coach who founded its football program 14 years ago, Jim Leavitt, after an investigation found that he had "grabbed the throat and slapped the face" of a player. Leavitt's denials were "consistently uncorroborated by credible witnesses," the university's investigative report said. The coach has promised to sue to regain his job.

Such behavior probably strikes many college professors or administrators as a sort of discipline that would never be acceptable in the classroom or other academic settings -- going, for example, well beyond the tough intellectual love of the Socratic method.

The best coaches have always seen themselves as teachers, but for some reason, over time it has often been not only acceptable, but even expected, that coaches may motivate through abuse.

"It's really not debatable that if you go outside sports, it's clear that you don't get the best out of people by verbally abusing them. If you've got a supervisor who is verbally abusing you all the time, you're not going to do your best," says Jim Thompson, president of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national group focused on youth sports. "But verbal abuse of players is pretty common in big-time college football programs, and in fact there are a bunch of people out there who would be think something's wrong if coaches weren't verbally beating up on players."

The line hasn't always been drawn at verbal abuse. Bill Curry, a former National Football League star who coached at the Universities of Alabama and Kentucky and is now coaching Georgia State University's nascent football team, recalls how his high school coach could "club you with his forearm and knock you back if not down," and "nobody went home and complained." And there are "legendary coaches," he notes, "who are famous and or infamous for their rages, and sometimes for physical attacks on players, and nobody thought much about it."

Mike Leach, fired at Texas Tech

Much of that behavior came in the name of discipline, and it's no surprise that coaches sometimes feel the need to impose their will, Curry says, when they're surrounded by 100-odd male teenagers, "who can be among the most frustrating creatures on earth, who think they're clever, and don't mind making your life difficult if they think that's appropriate."

(Curry himself admits that there were times when "I'd said things to players and I wished I had not." He also had his own unhappy moment in the spotlight when, in a 1990 bowl game, as the coach was lecturing a player whom he thought had shown up the opponent with showboating after scoring a touchdown, the player turned away to watch a play, and Curry grabbed him by the face mask to continue the conversation -- an act captured and shown to the world by the television cameras.)

Shifting Ground

Now, "the earth is shifting beneath coaches' feet, and it has been for several years," says Curry. He and others cite a combination of factors: increasing attention paid (by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and others) to the well-being of players, the heightened scrutiny in recent months to the risk of brain damage from football-related concussions, the increasing (over)involvement of parents in their children's everyday lives, and the increasingly intense spotlight in which big-time college coaches operate, at least in part because of the increasing millions many of them are earning.

"Coaches are much more under scrutiny, and the line is much more defined now than in the past," says Dale of Duke. "You can’t touch kids, let alone give them that forearm shiver. And there's less and less acceptance of the emotional abuse" that Kansas' Mangino was accused of, he adds. "You can demand excellence, you can demand that you do things the right way without physically or mentally abusing people."

What is it about coaches and sports that have made behavior that would be out of place in most other settings seem acceptable to some of those in the field?

Some observers attribute it to the macho culture that dominates in sports like football, where violence is an integral part of life and physical contact is ever present.

Layer onto that the high stakes in the high profile college sports of football and men's basketball: "where there are financial incentives tied to winning and long-term contract renewals are dependent mostly on winning, it's probably not surprising that for those who are evaluated along those terms, tunnel vision can occur," says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Foundation Commission on the Future of Athletics. "You can lose focus on the core purpose of the programs," which should be ensuring sports' contributions to athletes' educational goals, she said.

Some leading coaches also have the potentially damaging habit of being what Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance calls "monopolists" -- people who like being in control, think they're always right, and surround themselves with "nodders" instead of colleagues who might occasionally

Jim Leavitt, fired at South Florida

tell them they're wrong, he says.

"In general, where you have power coaches, it is not unusual for assistants or others to approach them with trepidation," says Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport at the University of Central Florida. "They're left alone too much to do whatever they decided to do."

Particularly in the situation at Texas Tech, where the player in question was disciplined on two separate occasions in ways that involved multiple people to carry out -- as opposed to the in-the-heat-of-the-moment outburst like the alleged incident at South Florida -- where were the assistant coaches or others who might have questioned Mike Leach's tactics? Lapchick wondered.

Change in the Weather?

For those who remember Indiana University's years of putting up with Bob Knight's violent temper and occasional physical and emotional abuse of players, among the most striking things about the latest trio of incidents is that all three ended in the coaches' firings or forced departures, within weeks, if not days, of the allegations being made.

Setting aside the suggestions that administrators at Texas Tech sought an excuse to dump Leach because they resented his behavior the year before during a contract dispute, all three of the coaches in question had been reasonably successful in their jobs. Leach, especially, was at the top of his powers in some ways; he was suspended as the team was preparing for a bowl game.

Do these dismissals suggest that the balances of power between players and coaches and/or coaches and administrators has shifted away from the so-called power coaches, who have often been seen as firmly in control of their programs if they keep winning? "It's a little early to say" based on these few incidents, says Duke's Dale. "Let's see what happens when we have a Hall of Fame coach" accused of abusing a player.

As a product of a generation in which tough treatment of players was acceptable, and as someone who is just re-entering the college coaching ranks today, Curry predicts that the swing of the pendulum will make life harder for some coaches, but better for their players. "The upshot of all this will be better for the kids," he says.

"The really abusive guys that have been abusing players will either be run out of the business or will stop cussing at the kids and doing other stupid things," Curry says. "There are lots of examples of coaches and cultures that can win by being positive."

To those of his peers who believe that coaches cannot instill discipline without an iron fist or a raised voice, Curry demurs -- while arguing strongly for the need for coaches to be in control.

"Discipline is absolutely vital," he says. "Here's what works, though. 'You don't pay attention to our rules, you don't play. You sit right here by me [on the bench].' They will study, they will act like gentleman, they will do what you say, if they think you'll sit them down."

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