Abused Athletes

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came under fire last week for hiring a volunteer assistant who had been accused of abusing players at the University of Illinois. The NCAA has no rules against coaches mistreating their players. 

September 1, 2016
 
University of Illinois
Former Illinois head football coach Tim Beckman

Last year, the University of Illinois fired its head football coach, Tim Beckman, after an external review of his behavior revealed that he put his players at risk by deterring them from reporting injuries and pressuring them to continue playing when hurt.

The charges were serious, with players reporting that Beckman sent his players back onto the field even when suffering from concussions and knee injuries, and that he taunted those who said they were too hurt to play. Many found it surprising, then, when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s football program confirmed last week that it had hired the dismissed Illinois coach as a volunteer assistant.

Criticism of the hiring was swift, and Beckman resigned by the end of the week (the former coach said he stepped down to avoid being a distraction, and still denies that he abused his players at Illinois). Larry Fedora, UNC’s head football coach, defended his decision to hire Beckman, saying, “I promise you, I didn’t see anywhere where the NCAA said he should be banished from the game of football."

While it’s true that Beckman was not punished by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, athlete welfare advocates say the lack of penalties points less to Beckman’s innocence and more to the NCAA’s failure to create rules protecting athletes from abuse.

“The NCAA needs to take an active role,” said Ramogi Huma, a former college football player and executive director of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes. “Instead, they sit on their hands time and time again. They’ll investigate players for making a few bucks from selling their own autographs, but if that player is beat up by a coach, or put back into a game with a concussion, risking his life because the coach wants to win a game, the NCAA does nothing.” 

The NCAA has punished coaches for breaking recruiting rules and certain other kinds of misconduct, with the most serious sanction being the association’s show-cause penalty, which requires a coach's current institution (if he or she has kept a job) or prospective future employer (if he or she has been fired) to meet with the NCAA to justify the coach's employment. Such punishments are reserved for recruiting violations or academic fraud, though. Coaches are rarely -- if ever -- punished by the NCAA for abusive behavior, because there are no NCAA rules devoted to verbal and physical abuse of players. 

“The NCAA isn’t in a place to be a coaching certification body,” Brian Hainline, the NCAA's chief medical officer, told Sports Illustrated last year, saying the association preferred to educate coaches on athlete mental health and bullying, rather than create new rules addressing abusive coaching. 

The NCAA has policies on how coaches and programs should deal with concussions and other head injuries, but the policies are only non-enforceable guidelines, not rules. This year, members of the five wealthiest conferences -- known as the Power Five -- adopted new rules that bar coaches from interfering in the decisions of medical personnel.

Other aspects of injury management are still up to individual programs and their coaches, and the new concussion rules do not apply to the hundreds of other colleges in the NCAA. “Generally speaking, show-cause penalties can only be applied by the Committee on Infractions when specific NCAA rules were violated, which is not always the case when personnel or code of conduct problems are uncovered,” Stacey Osborn, a spokeswoman for the NCAA said.

That means Beckman did not break NCAA rules when he allegedly tackled a player to the ground during an argument, or threatened to take a player’s scholarship away because the player damaged a ligament in his knee, or pressured another player to return to the field two weeks after an ankle injury that doctors said would take eight weeks to heal.

"I've had coaches who were father figures to everybody on the team, and I've had coaches that should be in prison," Bob DeMars, a filmmaker and former football player for the University of Southern California, said. "That the NCAA or schools aren't protecting the players from abusive coaches is deplorable. The NCAA was founded to protect the well-being of athletes in the system and they have since turned their backs on that principle."

Last August, the National College Players Association wrote a letter to the NCAA urging the association to intervene in the Illinois case. Women’s basketball players there had also complained of abuse and filed a lawsuit against the university, as had a women’s soccer player who said she was forced back into play while still recovering from a concussion.

The NCPA asked the NCAA to adopt a standing policy that would allow all athletes transferring because of abusive environments to do so without eligibility penalties. The NCAA typically requires athletes who transfer institutions to sit out a year. The NCPA also asked the association to create a set of emergency rules “to prevent player abuse nationwide.”

In his response to the NCPA, Oliver Luck, the NCAA’s executive vice president of regulatory affairs, said the association’s current waiver process for transfer athletes was sufficient and that it “was aware of the situation at Illinois and will engage as appropriate.” Luck added that "[s]tudent-athlete well-being is a high priority for the NCAA and is at the forefront of all of our decisions and actions." 

The association had a similar response in 2013, when a video emerged showing Mike Rice, then-Rutgers University’s men’s basketball coach, kicking and grabbing athletes, hurling balls at their heads and using several gay slurs. The university had known about the abuse for months, but originally opted only to suspend the coach and fine him $50,000.

After ESPN obtained and aired the video, the university fired the coach. Rice and Rutgers were not penalized by the NCAA. Rice is now a high school basketball coach in New Jersey.

“He’s trying to revive his career,” said Eddie Comeaux, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California at Riverside. “If he wants to use that job to land a position back in college sports, he probably could, because programs can be pretty willing to forgive.”

After Rutgers fired Rice, the university hired Julie Hermann to become its new athletics director. Soon after Herrman’s hire, more than a dozen volleyball players accused her of having abused them when she was their coach at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s. That same year, Rutgers suspended its men’s lacrosse coach over allegations of verbal abuse.

Since Rice was fired from Rutgers, coaches have been accused of abuse at the University of Arkansas, Boston University, Brown University, College of Charleston, Duke University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Indiana University, Iowa State University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Nebraska, Oakland University, Pace University, Pennsylvania State University, Queens College, the University of Rhode Island, Seton Hall, the University of Utah, and Wake Forest University.

“We understand, as parents of athletes, that coaches sometimes are passionate about their sport,” parents complained in a letter to the University of Arkansas about its women's volleyball coach last year. “Sometimes they yell. Sometimes they say things a little out of the ordinary. Sometimes they may curse. But this man terrorizes our daughters.”

The Arkansas coach resigned, but the coaches at Duke, Indiana, Iowa State, Pace University, Penn State, Rhode Island and Rutgers remained employed after the allegations.

Last month, eight volleyball players at Texas Woman's University were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis, a dangerous condition that involves muscle tissue breaking down. The university is still investigating what caused the illness, but said earlier this week that the condition likely resulted from "overexertion coupled with dehydration" during practices. The team's coach resigned days after the players were hospitalized, but she said in a statement that her resignation was not related to her players' health. 

“This has taken on an endemic proportion in an environment where there are no rules, no sanctions and no relief for the student-athletes,” Martin Greenberg, chairman of Marquette University’s National Sports Law Institute, wrote in a letter to the NCAA. “Coaching techniques characterized by ‘in your face,’ ‘dominate your enemy,’ and ‘win at all costs’ are probably from a past era. Physical and verbal abuse and bullying should be grounds for immediate termination with cause. Every university needs to adopt a zero-tolerance policy. The NCAA needs to take the leadership in this area. To date, nothing or little has been done.”

Last month, the NCAA and five co-defendants -- including three Frostburg State University staff members -- agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a Frostburg State football player who died after suffering a head injury. The NCAA and the university admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement. In its original response to the wrongful death lawsuit, the NCAA said it had no “legal duty to protect” college athletes.

The association had already said as much when the player’s mother wrote a letter to Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, asking why the association never investigated her son’s death. David Klossner, the NCAA’s health and safety director, sent a four-paragraph letter in response, telling her that colleges, not the NCAA, are responsible for athlete welfare.

The family decided to sue after receiving the letter, as well as messages from other players who were with their son the day he was injured. The lawsuit alleged that the player, Derek Sheely, had earlier suffered a concussion and complained of a headache during a preseason football practice in August 2011. He had complained of similar headaches days earlier, and a wound on his head had reopened four times in three days. According to the lawsuit, instead of pulling Sheely from practice when he said his head hurt, an assistant coach told him to “Quit acting like a pussy, and get back out there, Sheely."

Later, while running a drill that required him to repeatedly run full speed into another player, Sheely collapsed. He never regained consciousness and died later that week.

“When you’re talking about player abuse, it’s not a small thing,” Huma, of the NCPA, said. “These are very damaging actions that can have very serious consequences.” 

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