Mike Rice and the bigger problem

USA TODAY Sports

Mike Rice was fired on Wednesday, but if you're horrified by the practice tapes we saw some from Rutgers, let's talk about the bigger problem.

Less than 24 hours after ESPN ran a report detailing his abusive behavior in practices, Rutgers coach Mike Rice has been fired. Tim Pernetti, the Rutgers athletic director who didn't fire Rice earlier, could be fired soon enough, because the video and ESPN's report were just that damning. Since the report aired, LeBron James has voiced his disgust, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie echoed those sentiments, and the whole thing's mushroomed into the biggest story in sports.

"Everything that was done was not acceptable to the Rutgers standard," Pernetti told ESPN Tuesday, "and that's why we suspended him three games."

Next to video of a basketball coach throwing basketballs at his players' heads, kicking players, and calling them c***s and f*****s, the AD who answered with a three-game suspension and a $50,000 fine is almost as disgraceful. Everyone failed here.

But it's more complicated than a problem at Rutgers. Mike Rice deserves to be fired, and probably Pernetti, too, but if Rutgers' basketball practice is our example of the system failing college kids, there are plenty of other schools with the exact same problem.

To put this in perspective, look at one of the most-beloved coaches of the past 25 years, Rick Majerus at Utah and St. Louis. According to a deaf center who transferred from Utah in 2002, Majerus once called him "a disgrace to cripples" who had "weaseled [his] way through life using [his poor] hearing as an excuse."

Or details from an S.L. Price Sports Illustrated profile in 2008, in which former Utah star Michael Doleac remembers Majerus pulling out his penis to make a point:

Doleac spent his first three years at Utah shell-shocked by Majerus's tirades, his knack for calling his players "c----." It didn't help that once during the 1995-96 season Majerus got so desperate—to make a point, to lighten the mood—that he flashed his team. It was during a morning shootaround. Majerus kept telling Doleac that he needed to keep six inches between himself and his opponent in the post. When Doleac was caught shortly after leaning on his man, the coach erupted. "'Jesus f------ Christ, Doleac! When a guy catches the ball in the post, you gap him six inches!'" Doleac recalls Majerus yelling. "Then he turns to the guys sitting on the baseline and says, 'Six f------ inches,' and he says, 'the size of the average white d---!' and pulls it out. That story spread like wildfire, but at the time it's not funny. At the time you're terrified."

Or when he grabbed a player's testicles and hit Doleac in the chest:

Doleac describes the huddle during a Sweet 16 struggle with Stanford in the 1997 NCAA tournament in which Majerus grabbed Mottola's testicles and said, "Have some f------ balls, Hanno!" That, Doleac says, "did cross the line." Majerus, he adds, "hit me in the chest once. Whoom!"

When Rick Majerus passed away earlier this year last year, he was remembered as the jovial crown prince of college basketball, and nobody's here to trample on his legacy. But there's no way that's the legacy if ESPN airs scenes of Rick Majerus pulling his dick out.

There are other examples. Bobby Knight at Indiana and Texas Tech. His son Pat and that one horrible press conference. Or Billy Gillispie at Texas Tech, whose cruelty to players was documented at length last year, including marathon practices, forcing injured players to practice, and refusing to renew players' scholarships. And if you think that kind of behavior is limited to the three or four coaches we've heard about, you have more faith than me.

Where it gets complicated: Former players at Kentucky and Texas Tech love Billy Gillispie. One said, "He loves his players, with no exceptions. I would never doubt that for a second. Playing for him was tough, but I came out alive and a better person for it."

Likewise for Majerus. As Doleac told Sports Illustrated, "I love Majerus to death; he's a friend to this day. ... It's not like he was swinging at me. He was mad, and he just popped me in the chest hard. Could you say that crossed the line? Of course. Did it really? Was he trying to molest Hanno? No, he was mad and he did something impulsively and it got the point across and we wound up winning. He didn't choke a guy."

Star-divide

This isn't to condone Mike Rice. But while Outside The Lines went Def Con Piano Music to describe what happened at Rutgers, we should add this:

  • The videos weren't all that extreme considering what we've heard from other programs
  • Plenty of players who've been through similar experiences came out grateful for it years later.

Were the Mike Rice videos stupid and a little bit horrifying?

Of course.

Beyond that, I had three reactions to the story.

1. Again, this definitely happens elsewhere.

2. Players don't always hate these coaches. Often times they come to love them. Even psychotic assholes like Billy Gillispie and Bobby Knight. I refuse to believe Mike Rice was more verbally abusive to players than Knight ever was, and when Knight's behavior finally got him fired Indiana, many of his former players swore off supporting the program for life. It makes no sense, but it happens. Coaches can afford to treat players like crap in the name of character-building, and sometimes it will work, and players will thank them later. If the teams win, complaints will be drowned out by the success, and it creates a cycle that validates insufferable-but-successful coaches like Bobby Knight for decades at schools like Indiana. (Never forget: Bobby Knight drove off LARRY BIRD when he was at IU.)

This cycle will continue forever, or for as long as college athletes make no money, have their scholarships renewed (or not) on a year-by-year basis, and can't leave without putting their entire career on hold. With no leverage, they have no choice but to endure an asshole like Mike Rice, and that's doubly true when the coach in question is actually winning.

3. That brings us to the third, more complicated problem. Mike Rice is an asshole when he loses, but if he'd been winning the past three years, maybe he's just fiery this week.

Star-divide

We should definitely get rid of guys like Rice. We all agree. His tactics are a bunch of archaic bullshit. But if we should definitely get rid of guys like Rice, we should also admit there's a double standard when we frame stories about these insane practices. You can't be horrified by what Rutgers practice videos and lionize more successful dictators elsewhere. Reading everyone's reaction to Mike Rice reminded me of this old Bear Bryant story:

... in the rugged country known as Junction, Texas, some three hundred miles from the A&M campus, the legendary coach took his players to hell and back. The Aggies were short on talent that season and, as Bryant said, he wanted to "separate the quitters from the keepers."

[...]

It was a miracle that no one died. Several suffered from heat prostration and tackle Billy Schroeder was saved on his deathbed by a wily old doctor named John Wiedeman who packed the boy's body in ice. Schroeder, who still suffers physically from the heat stroke, remembers the out of body experience at the infirmary in downtown Junction. He remembers floating to the ceiling and then watching the doctors and two nurses attending to his body. He still carries the image of student trainer Billy Pickard standing over him and bawling like a newborn calf, believing the star player was dead.

It was 1954, and there was no Outside The Lines around to document that insanity. Instead, 50 years later, ESPN made a movie mythologizing what happened in Junction, Texas. That came a year after they'd made a movie about Bobby Knight, "A Season On The Brink".

As part of the promotion for the Knight movie, a former player addressed the elephant in the room. "It's absurd to think any of us were abused mentally or physically. Absurd," he said. "We were grown men. When you go to play for Coach Knight, you know how it's going to be beforehand. If you know deep down inside you can't take it, why even sign up to begin with? All these people saying things about badly the players are treated? Come on."

This is what players say when they win with these coaches. Instead of piano music and emotional interviews, when these coaches win, sappy movies get made and the piano music means something else entirely. Abuse becomes character-building, and pain becomes a fond memory.

This is why certain college coaches will get away with this forever. Because if they win, the conversation gets framed a whole different way. Billy Gillispie would still be at Kentucky if he'd won. Bobby Knight would be at Indiana if he'd kept winning. And maybe there'd be a movie about Mike Rice if he'd taken an underdog Rutgers team to the Final Four a few times.

At the core, the issues surrounding Mike Rice are a problem with college sports, and how we understand all this. We like to think college sports builds character in fresh-faced amateurs, and when those coaches and players win, we like to tell ourselves it's because they learned how to work hard and flourish under pressure.

"It was good for them," we say.

"It was good for me," former players will say.

This is how someone like Mike Rice can tell himself he's coaching the right way.

People make movies about it, people write books and vicious practices become legend.

Then we nod proudly, and say that's why we love college sports.

Where players get an education.

That's fine. But if you're really horrified by what happened at Rutgers and think it's time to get rid of the psychotic 1950s coaching style, understand the real problem. Abusive coaches like Mike Rice are a symptom of a disease that involves college sports as a whole and how we understand them, and the behavior is complicated by success that shapes how we and the players understand it later. Sure, that's all part of it.

But if you're really horrified, the problem's also pretty basic.

Scholarships and transfer rules create a system for 19- and 20-year-old kids that's something like indentured servitude. Major college athletes work year-round to play sports on cable television, with no salary, and then face restrictions on when and how they can work somewhere else. It all happens at the foot of coaches who control every facet of their lives. When coaches have that much power, it's bound to get abused by many of them, not just Mike Rice. Giving players more freedom and leverage may not end abusive coaches, but it would give players options, and give coaches pause before they go crazy on some terrified freshman.

So if you think college players deserve to be treated like adults with basic human rights, then we should probably start treating them like adults with basic human rights.

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