Skip to main content

Rutgers coach and sports' bully culture

By John Amaechi, Special to CNN
April 4, 2013 -- Updated 1751 GMT (0151 HKT)
Mike Rice, pictured in 2011, was fired as Rutgers' head basketball coach this week over a video of him abusing his players.
Mike Rice, pictured in 2011, was fired as Rutgers' head basketball coach this week over a video of him abusing his players.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rutgers coach Mike Rice fired after video shows him kicking and bullying players
  • John Amaechi says this behavior is not rare, it is part of a damaging coaching culture
  • We would never let French or math teachers abuse vulnerable kids this way, he says
  • Amaechi: Abusive coaching is perpetuated from generation to generation and needs to stop

Editor's note: John Amaechi is a former NBA player and author of "Man in the MIddle." He is an organizational consultant and a high-performance executive coach and runs Amaechi Performance, a personal development and business success consultancy firm. He also runs a community and sporting center in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAmaechi.

(CNN) -- Too often, it's tempting to view sports through rose-tinted glasses. We believe that coaches always have the best interests of our young people at heart and that everything they do on the side of that court, field, pool or track is for the long-term, holistic benefit of young people.

We even rationalize that coach-player interaction and athlete management behavior that makes us wince and avert our gaze somehow makes our children -- and even society -- stronger and our future elite athlete role models more humble and worthy.

Sadly, "it's character-building" is the rallying cry for dysfunction and another damaged generation. Even when we believe that a young person's sports experience is on the wrong track, we convince ourselves it can't have that much of an impact. I wish that were true, but medieval coaches, like the recently fired Mike Rice at Rutgers University, are a detriment to society, not just sport.

Opinion: Wrong move to fire bullying coach

John Amaechi
John Amaechi

As a former basketball player at college and in the NBA, I know this coaching style firsthand. Frankly, you can't print the way I was treated in some sporting environments. At a major U.S. university, I had an assistant coach who would engineer drills to maximize the chance of fighting or conflict and who frequently called his players "p**sy" and "queer."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



In the pros, players were humiliated every day with the crude epithets of sports, demeaned, belittled and challenged physically by coaches without the ability to actually take up their challenge. It was demoralizing, but at least we were well compensated for being treated like dirt.

What saved me is that I didn't start playing sports until I was 17, so I was spared much of the trauma of what I see happening to kids today.

I'm not soft, and I'm certainly not politically correct. Indeed, I make sure that membership in my sports and community center in the UK is challenging: physically demanding and psychologically testing but emotionally warm. A place where high value is placed on building and nurturing positive relationships while still expecting the very highest standards in sport, study and life from our participants.

Watch: John Amaechi on coaches who bully

I saw the video of Rice's coaching "techniques" and felt momentarily vindicated -- before waves of nausea born of watching the repeated verbal, physical, emotional and psychological abuse overwhelmed that momentary hubris.

Ex-player: Mike Rice 'had an edge'
Amaechi: Rutgers coach should be fired
Hear ex-Rutgers coach's apology

I take a lot of stick, mostly from men and from around the world, who think that Rice's behavior might be a bit extreme but that coaching is somehow not beholden to the usual educational norms. In classrooms and other educational settings, this behavior would never be tolerated and indeed would mean expulsion from an entire profession, not just from a job.

We have allowed a parallel universe to develop where sports coaching is concerned. We don't generally tolerate granting underqualified but well-meaning teachers unfettered access to vulnerable people. But in sports, someone giving up some time for free and winning some games -- while being entirely unqualified to be around young people -- is vaunted.

I watch amateur sports most weeks and always ask parents who see coaches screaming and spitting, shouting and grabbing their children whether they would tolerate that as "character-building" if it were a French or math teacher doing the same thing. Invariably, their faces change, and you see the immediate outrage.

The truth is, they would never countenance that treatment if it happened in the classroom. Without the shield of sports gear and sweat, the damage to their children becomes clear.

I am aware that in the U.S. and Great Britain, coaches are usually volunteers, and volunteers are well-meaning. But I will say very strongly that I don't care. Being well-meaning and full of good will is not sufficient.

Abusive coaches are the products of emotionally illiterate and physically and psychologically violent, coercive and under-informed coaching environments. Although many family and educational factors can mold a man like Rice, you can be certain his experience in youth sports has played a major role in honing his understanding of acceptable behavior in sports as an adult.

ESPN to reveal more Rice allegations
Watch Rutgers coach abuse players

Radically improving coaching's tone and style and respecting an athlete's psychological welfare are so important because bad coaching can unleash monsters on society, each generation meting out abuse learned at the hands of the one before.

Men like Rutgers' Rice are not rare, they are simply rarely caught on tape, rarely exposed and rarely challenged. A recent UK study (PDF) suggests that 75% of young people experience psychologically harmful treatment in sport.

This is the gravity of our collective responsibility and the burden of the role of coach. As coaches and educators, we participate in the creation of indelible memories for young people. Coaches cannot afford to be just good at winning.

The violence and unpredictability of authoritarian and aggressive coaching infects all those it touches. Think of the number of young men who have experienced Rice's wrath over his career. That kind of poison infects and potentially manifests in all but the most resilient of them.

Coaches need to stop bullying and start mentoring, educating and inspiring young people. It's for the benefit of our young people now but also for them, and others, when they grow up and gain power of their own.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Amaechi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT