Skip to main content

Rutgers coach and sports' bully culture

By John Amaechi, Special to CNN
updated 1:51 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
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
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT