Skip to main content

Wrong move to fire bullying coach

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Thu April 4, 2013
Rutgers head coach Mike Rice was fired after a video emerged of him berating and abusing players.
Rutgers head coach Mike Rice was fired after a video emerged of him berating and abusing players.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones: Firing Rice won't make a difference: Sports appeals to our Neanderthal side
  • Jones: Every athlete has had a "Coach Rice," who bullies and berates team members
  • Jones: Athletes say it's good to get tough; you play for the love of the game, not the coach
  • Jones: Rice didn't pretend to be gentle. His brutal passion was one reason he was hired

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- Sports are not pretty.

And firing Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice will not take the brutality out of college sports. It does not change a thing. Even in these politically correct times, the essence of sport will always lie in the Neanderthal within us all.

Watching the video of Rice batter and berate his players, I recalled the dozens of other times I'd witnessed similar scenes, at my son's Amateur Athletic Union games, at playground pick-up games.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones
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.



And I thought immediately of watching coaches like Bobby Knight and P.J. Carlesimo.

The video highlights are not easy to watch, but they do not tell the whole story.

"Yes he went overboard. But you can't get a good feeling for what went down by seeing highlights on ESPN. No one was scared of Coach Rice. We didn't fear him. We just understood him," Mike Coburn, who played for Rice from 2010-11, told New Jersey's Star Ledger.

Opinion: Rutgers coach and sports' bully culture

Indeed, the world today is in a better, more enlightened place, where it's not nice to call people obscene or homophobic names. Where slapping people upside the head, beaning them with a basketball or giving them a swift kick in the rear is not considered the best motivational tactic. But the sports nation has not quite caught up with the rest of this kinder, gentler world. Frankly, I don't think it should -- not completely anyway.

That may be hard to understand for some people. But no one who has been up close to sports can honestly be shocked by Rice's coaching techniques. He is not an anomaly -- especially in the win-at-all-costs, big-money world of college sports. He just got caught on video, and we must react. We can debate whether bully-coaching is an effective motivational tool. But there's no debate that it is practiced throughout sports, from Little League on up.

For most fans, sports are a feel-good experience that teaches life lessons: how to lead, how to lose, how to push yourself to your highest potential. I watched in amazement as my son evolved from a shy, awkward, oversized boy to a strong, confident leader. The change began when he fell in love with basketball at a young age. Did he have tyrannical coaches? Yes, one.

His AAU coach was a terror. Yelling the entire practice, he often degraded his 10-year-old boys. He told them they were nothings, just little black boys who would probably end up dead or in prison before 21. He screamed, eyes bulging, that without basketball they'd be nothing. He shoved them, when he thought no one was looking. And who knows what he said to his team when parents weren't within listening distance. So, his father and I always stayed close by, just in case things got out of hand.

Hear ex-Rutgers coach's apology
ESPN to reveal more Rice allegations
Amaechi: Rutgers coach should be fired

My son thought his coach was weird and angry. Many of the kids on the team were private-school, college-bound black boys. Didn't matter. Coach was still stereotyping them. For Coach, it was a rough, racist world and the boys might as well toughen up early.

His team got blown out every game, but my son never wanted to quit. I remember asking a few of the pro athletes I worked with if I should take my son off the team. They said "absolutely not." It would be a good lesson for my son.

"You play the game for love of the game, you will not love all of your coaches," one Hall-of-Famer told me.

Turns out, they had all experienced a Bobby Knight type of coach. A Mike Rice. And the athletes argued that it was important for a young man to learn not to let a bully coach like that break you. They said it was their worst coaches who prepared them for the bullies they met later in life, on the court and in their corporate offices.

Rice never pretended to be a gentle leader. It was his brutal passion for the game, in part, that led Rutgers University's Athletic Director Tim Pernetti to hire Rice to coach the Scarlet Knights.

"I knew exactly what I was getting and I still know what I've got," Pernetti said when he hired Rice. "Mike coaches with an edge. That personality is ideal for our program here in New Jersey."

D-1 basketball is big time. Rice and his team were under pressure to produce wins and prove they belonged in the big leagues. That's why Rice wasn't fired when the video was first shown to the athletic director. He was suspended for three games and fined $50,000.

But the story didn't end there. It took the threat of a wrongful termination lawsuit by Eric Murdock, an ex-NBA player and a former director of player development for the Scarlet Knights, who complained to Pernetti about Rice's outrageous behavior. Murdock got fired for his concerns, according to his attorney, Raj Gadhok.

Then the video was released to the media. The school decided the story was just too hot to explain -- best to dump the coach and avoid a public relations mess. It was a knee-jerk solution, a marketing move.

But don't think for one minute that Rice won't find a way to rehabilitate his reputation. He'll go to anger management classes. His peers will say he's a changed man. He'll show remorse to the media. Then he'll be back coaching in the college game in no time at all.

Brutes will always have a seat at the sports table.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:22 AM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
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
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT