Thank you, Mike Rice

Former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice is at best a very confused and disturbed human being. He is at worst a psychopath in need of inpatient treatment. Today, I suggest we should thank him for his service.

Yes. Thank him.

This morning, Rutgers fired Rice for behavior that could get him arrested in most civilized parts of the world. What he did to his players was the very definition of assault and battery. He screamed at them. He demeaned them. He manhandled them. He threw balls at their heads. It wasn’t just one emotional moment. It was a pattern of behavior that a lot of people knew about. The release of the video shamed Rutgers—which at first only suspended Rice—into the firing. If there aren’t more firings to come, we should be just as offended as we were when we saw the video.

I’ve not seen anyone come to Rice’s defense, largely because it’s an indefensible position, and anyone who takes it should probably be monitored for similar psychopathic tendencies. What I have seen, however, is a slew of friends who report having experienced or witnessed the same kind of abuse by coaches throughout their lives beginning as early as Little League.

Indeed, we’ve all seen it before. Yelling. Cursing. Laying hands on kids. We’ve written it off as emotion and the drive to win. I even recall a track coach at my high school getting briefly suspended for kicking a runner in anger (the coach claimed low blood sugar).

I’ve never understood using shame or fear as motivators. I know that both can be effective (so can holding a gun to somebody’s head), but all the best coaches I’ve had and known have been patient but firm. They made it clear what was expected of their players, and they led by example. They appreciated that their players were doing their best, and if they suspected the players weren’t working hard enough, they found a civilized way to make that known. It might have been firm, but it was done with respect.

The difference: the gray line between respect and fear.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the last thing I want to do is disappoint someone I respect. The shame of being a disappointment rises so far above physical pain and/or yelling that the latter don’t even register. I suspect a lot of people are like that. Coaches do their best to instil that respect in the hope their players will work hard enough to not disappoint.

All of that said, when coaches confuse fear with respect, they have failed–maybe not necessarily as coaches, but definitely as humans.

I am the father of a young athlete. At eight years old, he’s a boy of tremendous spirit and energy. He’s already shown more athletic ability than his old man ever had. He’s maturing into a talented young player. No one can be harder on him than he is on himself when he fails to do as well as he thinks he can.

Does he frustrate me sometimes? By all means. He’s easily distracted. He loses focus. When he gets tired, he gets mentally lazy. Have I wanted to yell at him? Sometimes. But something I’ve come to realize about my son is how much better he responds to leadership and direction than he does to me getting mad.

Put another way: he might hear me better if I yell, but he won’t necessarily listen.

My son in 2009

My son in 2009

My son this season

My son this season

I watched the St. Louis Cardinals opener on Monday, and I was reminded of the Matheny Manifesto (covered expertly here by my friend Derrick Goold). Read the whole thing. It’s an amazing document, and it’s made a huge impact on young players. Its mission statement is one that would make any parent proud:

“We may not win every game, but we will be the classiest coaches, players, and parents in every game we play. The boys are going to play with a respect for their teammates, opposition, and the umpires no matter what.”

The two words that stand out there for me are “respect” and “class.”

Around the same time Mike Rice was getting fired today, ESPN posted the first interview with the Louisville Cardinal’s Kevin Ware. I watched it in awe. Ware–just a few days out from snapping his leg into two pieces–was in tears. He wasn’t crying because his career might be in question. He wasn’t crying because he won’t get to play in the Final Four. He was crying out of appreciation for his coach–a coach who stood beside him, helped him mature past some personal problems, and literally stayed behind with him at the hospital when the rest of the team left town. Say what you will about Rick Pitino (and there is a lot to be said), but try to imagine any Rutgers player having that kind of respect and appreciation for Mike Rice.

Our children–no matter whether they are eight years old or in college–probably will not be professional athletes, but that doesn’t mean their experience on the field or court can’t have a lasting impact on their lives. We can help our kids become good young men and women simply by giving them the kind of respect we demand. And they get to learn to play some amazing games in the meantime.

I won’t lie. It’s hard to follow Mike Matheny’s example. It’s a lot easier to be Mike Rice. Being disappointed happens. Losing happens. Mistakes happen. It’s how we respond to those things that will define us for much longer. When it’s all said and done, when our kids think back on their time as athletes, do we want them to remember the joy of playing or the fear of their parents and coaches?

So, tonight let’s thank Mike Rice for being the coach we shouldn’t be. Let’s thank Mike Rice for being a smudged and dirty mirror that reflects our own worst tendencies. Let’s thank Mike Rice for showing us that we as sports fans, parents, and humans have work to do.

Thanks, Mike Rice. Now, get the hell out.