A crisis of leadership in sports management

describe the image This past week, a video surfaced of Rutgers University Men’s Basketball Head Coach, Mike Rice, physically and verbally assaulting his players. Although this video was brought to the attention of the Rutgers Athletic Director and President in November, when he was fined and suspended for three games, it resurfaced this week only to spark a firestorm of controversy that concluded in his termination as head coach.  An Olympic game of finger pointing has subsequently ensued resulting in guilty verdicts in the court of public option for the Rutgers Athletic Director and the College President. The drama is still unfolding but some valuable lessons can already be gleaned from this experience.

The outcry around Mike Rice, while understandable and justified, is still somewhat striking.  Anyone who follows sports, works in sports or covers sports, knows that, while he may not be the rule, he is definitely not the exception.  I have heard many respond to this latest case that “college sports are out of control.”

Folks, while things may be getting better, much about college sports – and youth sports— and coaching remain the same.  While we have seen progress and regression on both sides of this issue I assure you the changes have been small, slow and not always forward. Too many coaches still use an autocratic style of coaching that’s centered in public humiliation and intimidation as the only forms of management and motivation. 

What is getting better is that we, as a society, are no longer accepting this culture in sport.  There is real outrage because more than the few believe that this is wrong. Yes!  But our excitement should be tempered—we have a long way to go as evidenced by this issue and the many that have recently come before it. I see three major themes that have surfaced in sport the last few months and they bring with them some valuable lessons learned.

Lesson # 1: No one is in the lighthouse, and the ships are off course.

It seems that the media (and I lump social media in there loosely) is now in charge of policing athletics. That is never a good thing. In the most recent cases, we have seen that the media has played a central and significant role in making sure that action is taken to address an issue. Whether it be Stubenville, Penn State, or Rutgers.  Where are the college presidents? Where are the athletic directors?  An athletic director is there to set the course and monitor the navigation of that course for all coaches, and student-athletes. They are responsible for ensuring that student-athletes are safe and the educational mission stays central in the process. Coaches seem to think they are artists and that if their tactics are questioned or challenged, we are interrupting the creative process. What we should be telling coaches is, you can mix the colors any way you want, but you will stay on the canvas provided and within the lines that have been prescribed.

Lesson # 2: Sticks and stones break bones, but bones heal.

The rampant use of the word “faggot” and “fairy” in the Mike Rice video was a repeated slap in the face to society waking us up to the fact that the culture of sport is still ripe with homophobia. This is not character building . It is not motivation . It is bullying. It is abuse and it is blatant homophobia. We allow too much of this in sport under the false pretense that it’s a natural part of building young men. I heard far too many men tell me this week that “my coach did that to me, and look I turned out ok. I’m a better man for it.” While I can’t speak to validity of their statement, I know that we, as a society, are never better off when we dehumanize and denigrate a group. We have learned that many times in our history. I have also heard the argument from men that went something like this: “My coach treated us worse than that but we won and we were better because of it”. It seems that winning becomes the smoke screen for bullies and abusive coaches. There is a right and wrong way to do the same thing, and I know plenty of coaches that have found ways to win games while also respecting, empowering and educating athletes.

Lesson #3: No license needed to drive this ship.

We have seen a big shift in this country. Thirty years ago many coaches were either current educators or folks who earned a degree in physical education.  While the vast majority of coaches have advanced degrees in sport management, for some no related degree or education is required. Currently the credentialing for coaches is on-the-job training and a resume of experience, no matter the quality or outcome of that experience for young athletes.  Knowing the impact that coaches have on young people, why are we not requiring more? Why aren’t coaches (from youth through collegiate sports) required to be credentialed like any other educator or professional? Is this the role of the NCAA or individual institutions? Who will step up first to make this change? Whoever does will set the world of sport spinning on its head.

These lessons learned may not be simple to implement, but they are possible. College Presidents need to demand that athletic directors step up and monitor their coaches. Athletic Directors need the authority and mandate to act with urgency when coaches are no longer adhering to the mission and values of an educational institution or humanity. And we need everyone, at every level of leadership and involvement in sports to step forward and state that homophobic slurs are unacceptable.

In the end we need courage; the courage to change the broken institution of sport. I hold out hope, but only time will tell if my hope is justified.

Diana Cutaia was the Director of Athletics and co-founder of the Sport based-Youth Development program at Wheelock College from 2005-2012. She has over 20 years’ experience in using sport as a tool for positive youth development and is a leading expert on topics such as physical activity, girls in sport, peaceful coaching, and positive cultures in sport. She is the owner of Coaching Peace Consulting, LLC. You can reach her at Diana@coachingpeace.com .