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.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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5 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    I quit playing soccer when I was little because I had a real jerk for a coach. I switched to baseball for three seasons until I got, yet another real jerk for a coach. I quit sports after that until High School. I was never a star player, but I also never stuck with a sport in my development years. I don’t think I would have ever been able to go pro, or anything like that, but you never know what might have happened.

    I also do not believe in “everyone gets a trophy” method either..

  2. Astin says:

    “Speak softly, for those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.”

  3. Drizztdj says:

    I can say my “Mike Rice” coach had a profound effect on me as a ballplayer at age 10. After that season I was never selected again to play for the traveling team or upper-division teams until high school.

    So, I never got the training I could have had from a city known for sending multiple players to colleges and my live arm died shortly after H.S.

    It’s a tough balance for sure as I have coached and yelled but never got physical. It wasn’t until last year when I finally appreciated what my son could do versus not, that yelling just sends him into a hole like I dove into at his age. Luckily, he’ll get the chance I never did.

  4. Gordon Dill says:

    If Rice’s teams were any good, he’d still have a job. Bobby Knight wasn’t a creep when he was winning National championships. He WAS a creep when he started losing. Rice coached the worst team in the Big East. If Rice was in the Final 4 this weekend…he’d be a master motivator who demands the best out of the young men he coaches.

  5. JT88Keys says:

    I’ve never been a great athlete, but I have been lucky enough to be a part of several first class music organizations. One of the very best of these was my college choir. The director of that choir demanded our respect by first giving us his. After that we were all just in awe of his dedication to perfecting the music we were attempting to perform. He would agonize over the phrasing of a simple 8 bar section for an entire rehearsal.

    I only ever saw him have to take any kind of disciplinary action once, but it was simple, quiet, and powerful. The college I attended was a Lutheran school. We ended each rehearsal with a short benedictory song. Once about 15 minutes into a 90 minute rehearsal the director cut off the group during a run through. One of the leaders of my section happened to be chatting with his neighbor instead of singing and right at the moment the choir stopped singing he laughed out loud. The director looked at him blankly for several seconds, played the chord for the song that ended each rehearsal, closed his music folder, and walked out while the choir was still in mid-song. Rehearsal was over 75 minutes early and nobody was happy about it…and nobody talked when they were supposed to be singing for the rest of the year.