Carole Oglesby remembers emotional abuse from her college softball years. In one case, the WomenSport International vice president recalled, the female coach benched Oglesby, a top athlete and team starter, because of some personal beef. Bad luck for her parents, who had driven from Los Angeles to Phoenix to watch their daughter play in the two-day competition.
It’s clear that bullying and emotional abuse by coaches of any gender has deep roots. But several complaints and lawsuits in recent months focused more attention on behavior that people would historically expect to see more from men.
“A lot of the emotional and more militaristic and combative coaching is traditionally male,” Oglesby said. That’s the in-your-face, dominate-your-enemy, win-at-all-costs approach that rarely triggers a second thought when it’s seen in men’s sports. Female coaches, on the other hand, have tended to take the “mastery approach,” where winning is simply a byproduct of playing your best.
“[Emotional abuse] is global. It’s not new, but I do think there are some new considerations that contribute to what looks like are rising incidents,” said Oglesby, a professor emeritus of sport psychology at Temple University.
Among those factors: more women playing sports but fewer women coaching them, social media’s efficiency in dispersing information quickly, an arguably more sensitive generation of students, and an increased societal awareness of and willingness to speak out about bullying.
“This is not a new issue; however, it is one that has not been well-documented,” Christine Shelton, a professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, said in an email. “It would be difficult to say if there are more cases now, or if there is more student-athlete and parental awareness of athletes’ rights to have a safe place to play and compete.”
Boston University women’s basketball coach Kelly Greenberg is the latest to face accusations, after four players left the team this year and said they had been emotionally abused, in one case to the point that it triggered suicidal thoughts. The university is investigating the allegations against Greenberg, which are not a first: similar complaints were filed seven years ago.
Oakland University, meanwhile, says its former women’s basketball coach, Beckie Francis, obsessed over her players’ weight and forced her Christian views upon them. The university documented the “mental and emotional abuse” in a court filing responding to a lawsuit by Francis, who was fired in June.
And Rutgers University took heat last year for bringing on an athletics director who was accused of verbally abusing her volleyball players as a University of Tennessee coach. Julie Hermann had called players “whores, alcoholics and learning disabled,” they said, casting doubt on the person Rutgers picked to help restore credibility to an athletics program marred by former men’s basketball coach Mike Rice’s physical and mental abuse of players.
“I am truly sorry that some were disappointed during my tenure as a coach,” Hermann said in a statement from Rutgers after the allegations came to light in May. “For sure, I was an intense coach, but there is a vast difference between high intensity and abuse.” ("Saturday Night Live" helpfully explored the difference after Rice was fired.)
The question, of course, is where that line is drawn. Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, admits that her self-esteem and confidence took hits when she played at East Tennessee State University – and she knew that was part of the game. But today’s athletes expect to be motivated in different ways, she said.
Bass added that reports of abuse are sometimes accelerated when information that may be also misunderstood or lack context is spread quickly and widely through social media, making it seem as if there are more incidents than there used to be.
“It’s kind of what’s going on with society, but I also think it’s a generational situation with these student-athletes. They don’t respond to tough love now,” she said. “You know it in your gut when it is abuse or bullying, when it becomes degrading. Are you building up or tearing down? It’s simple.” (The WBCA has numerous initiatives devoted to instilling healthy leadership skills.)
While it’s hard to say whether abuse is on the rise or people are just more aware of it now, Oglesby said, it may be that the mastery approach has diminished as more male coaches have taken jobs on women’s teams.
Only 39.6 percent of women’s teams at the 76 Division I Bowl Championship Series universities this year are being coached by women, according to an annual report by the University of Minnesota and the Alliance of Women Coaches. That figure is down more than 90 percent from 1972, when the passing of Title IX made female sports more prominent and lucrative.
“To have this conversation isn’t an indictment of some of the people that have been in the news recently; really, it’s more of an indictment of the culture of coaching in general,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society program. “There’s a general sense that sports is the ultimate framework for toughness, and that goes across genders…. You’re supposed to be impenetrable, on the court and with feelings.”
As bullying has become a more concerning issue for society, Lebowitz said, people are looking at its consequences in realms they didn’t used to, including sport. When a 300-pound lineman walks away from a professional football contract because of bullying, Lebowitz said, it's clear people have been “kind of crazy” to think that college students who are still developing mentally can handle that abusive power dynamic.
As the alleged events at Boston University suggest, sometimes they can’t. But Lebowitz said the actions of those athletes and their coach, as well as other allegations of abuse, raises questions about the developmental outcomes for athletes playing these sports.
“I think really what we have here is a social justice issue around, what does bullying look like,” he said. “The conversation has to change around how we view athletes as that impenetrable force.”