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What We Can Learn From the Abusive Rutgers Coach

Erin Zammett Ruddy

We are pretty new to the youth sports world—my son is five—and I’ve already seen crazy parents and overly-intense coaches and kids who are being pushed to play against their will. I just pray that my kid continues to have awesome coaches who understand what it’s all about and how to keep things in age-appropriate perspective. Alex has his first soccer game of the season on Saturday and his coach (who he’s had for the past two seasons) wrote this in his introductory email:

“My coaching philosophy is simple. We will win every game. Losing is not an option. Losing sucks!  So start the kids on a raw steak diet and I will see all of you Monday at 5:15 for our first practice.”

He was obviously poking fun at the youth sports culture we live in where kids start playing younger and younger and get ultra competitive way too soon. I loved it. And I honestly can’t wait for the game this weekend. It’s awesome to see my kid having so much fun and playing well and getting such joy and confidence from his team and his coach.

The thing is, a good coach can be the most incredible mentor to young kids, someone whose words they’ll remember forever. But a bad coach—even one bad coach—can be beyond damaging and completely ruin a sport for a young person, and shake their confidence in irreparable ways. 

Plus: Are Kids' Sports Too Competitive?

By now you’ve probably heard about the Rutgers men’s basketball coach and how he was fired today after videos surfaced of him physically and verbally abusing his team over the past three years. I’ve watched the video a few times—it’s the second most disturbing basketball video I’ve seen this week (the first would be Kevin Ware’s horrific leg break).

The coach, Mike Rice, is seen kicking players, throwing balls at them (even at their heads!), pushing them and screaming terrible gay slurs. It’s insane and hard to watch. The dude seems like a total nutcase who should seek help immediately and I can’t believe the athletic director didn’t do more when he first learned of this behavior last year (actually, of course I can believe it as we all know how effed up these big programs can be—hello, Penn State).

I can’t even imagine what else those poor boys endured.

That’s the thing that gets me most now that I’m a mom: These are boys. Some of them fresh out of high school, their first time on their own and this is the kind of person they have looking out for them? Shaping them as men who will grow up to—guess what?—probably not play basketball. (The NCAA is the first to acknowledge the statistical unlikelihood of their players going pro.) And I can only imagine what their parents must think seeing this video now. They probably invited this man into their homes for recruiting visits and trusted him with their impressionable boys, trusted him to mold them and inspire them and look out for them. It’s infuriating.  

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that coaching on this level is not about blowing sunshine up your team’s butt. Rutgers is a big-time Division I program and this man’s job is to get as many wins as possible. Coaches yell, they get frustrated, they may even freak out occasionally. I think athletes know this and certainly college athletes have been around long enough to understand that every coach has a different style and some are yellers.

But – and I can't believe this needs to be said – throwing balls at a kid’s head and calling him a "fairy" and worse is just plain unacceptable. I played Division I volleyball at The University of Tennessee and I can tell you it wasn’t all clapping and positive reinforcement. Hardly. In all honesty, we had an emotionally abusive coach who was ultimately fired, but that’s another story for another time. The point is, I get that it’s tough, I get that it’s not black and white.

But I also get that there should be a line. And perhaps when you find yourself heaving a basketball at a kid’s head, that line has been crossed.

Plus: Competitve Sports ... For Toddlers?

I have long been dubious of big-time college sports and what it does to the self-esteem and psyches of young people. And what, in the end, is the payoff for such a huge sacrifice (when you play D-I sports in a big program, it is pretty much all you do)? My experience—which was pretty awful and lasted only one year and is still something I rarely talk about—has influenced my feelings on this a lot.

That's not to say I don't want my kids playing or that I don't believe in sports. Before college I was a die-hard athlete and loved every second of the sports culture. And I had some great coaches. I also had some so-so ones. And I saw plenty of the politicking that goes on, which is another icky reality we as parents need to be aware of. But I persevered. I love sports and I know how good they are for our kids.

I wrote a story for Parenting’s April issue – “The Risks and Rewards of Youth Sports” – that discusses all of this and more. We are in a brave new world and anyone whose kids play or will play should read it. Yes, youth sports are fantastic for our kids. And I believe in good, healthy competition. But there are risks and other factors to consider. Including who are the people we trust to coach our children. Are they trained? Are they positive? Are they too focused on winning? Do they know what to do in case of injury? Are they…abusive?

I’m fascinated and frightened by all of it and I just hope I can maintain my convictions to never take any of it too seriously as my kids get older. A bad coach can change a person. Trust me. And as a mother to kids who will likely be playing plenty of sports, stories like this Rutgers debacle stay with me and make me think.

Sure this is the college level which, when it comes to basketball, may as well be pro. I wouldn't be surprised if stuff like this goes on in programs other than Rutgers. But we hand over our kids—our little kids—to coaches all the time. Who knows what’s going on at practice when we’re not there? If your kid is anything like mine he's probably not giving you the blow-by-blow you want. So maybe it's not be a bad idea to ask the coach what his or her philosophy is before leaving the field next time.  

Would love to know what you guys think of this story. How did you react? What would you do if it was your son getting pegged in the head? Are you dubious of youth sports and the competitive nature? Let's discuss

And be sure to come visit me over at my new site, erinzammettruddy.com. I have a sports-themed post over there today, too! 

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