I had two basketball coaches in high school.
One guy profoundly influenced the person I became, while the other guy became someone I tried to forget.
I started thinking about the coaches I’ve had and their influence on me after reading the heartbreaking details of how a toxic coaching culture led to the death of a young football player, Jordan McNair, last May. The 19-year-old offensive lineman died at a Maryland hospital two weeks after collapsing during a sprint workout on May 29. When he died of heat stroke, his body temperature was 106 degrees, according to an ESPN article detailing the problems at the football program.
The ESPN article details a program where there is a “coaching environment based on fear and intimidation.” It interviews a number of athletes about having their masculinity mocked, belittling them for passing out during a drill, forcing players to eat until they puked, and slapping the food out of a player’s hands during a team meeting.
When ESPN asked to interview the coaches in question, they were told they’d been placed on leave while an investigation into the allegations took place — something that didn’t happen until nearly two months after McNair’s death.
This is not a football issue.
It’s a sports issue.
There were reports of this kind of abuse in the University of Utah’s swim program led by former head coach Greg Winslow for six years, and I’ve talked with dozens of parents over the years whose children have endured verbal and emotional abuse at the high school level.
I’d like to say organizations know how to deal with physical and sexual abuse, but Michigan State and Penn State proved that’s not true. Still, it seems those situations have become slightly more clear — and intolerable — while verbal and emotional abuse remains this gray area that those in power can use to ignore or excuse what would be absolutely unacceptable behavior outside of sports.
For example, I regularly see and hear coaches swear at players, including calling them names, and this is accepted by all of us as part of the experience. Sometimes the swearing is more at the situation than the teen, but it’s still intimidating, and I wonder if that’s ever a positive.
Which brings me to my two basketball coaches.
I never played club basketball, so my only exposure to the sport was high school. My first coach was also my biology teacher, and he was no softie.
He was, however, extremely patient and very good at reading what each of his players required. I was terrible the first year, and so he praised my work ethic and how I supported my teammates.
He took me aside more than once to tell me that I was a good teammate and that he enjoyed coaching me. The grand total of my playing time in that first year amounted to my age — about 14 minutes.
But I loved it. I returned the next year and was his starting point guard. Again, he praised me, helped me and made me feel pretty darn good about my basketball abilities. I even got to spend a bit of time on the junior varsity team that year.
My junior year, however, I was exclusively a JV player, and while I started, I was miserable. Our coach was perpetually angry, and I found myself working overtime not to "trigger" a tirade.
One practice, that sometimes I joke about, he threw passes at us until no one dropped one. My hands were sore for hours afterward, and it was then I decided I wasn’t good enough to stick with the sport after that season.
Here’s why I bring up my ridiculously modest basketball career. Because of coach No. 1, I saw myself as a hard worker who was a good friend and teammate. I saw those kinds of contributions as valuable. I realized, because of his influence, which included many one-on-one chats, that a person didn’t have to be center stage to be critically important to team success.
He taught me to embrace, and really to value above all else, the idea that team matters more than individual accomplishment.
Coach No. 2 taught me one thing — the kind of person I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want those who looked to me for information or advice to be afraid of me. He didn’t make me hate sports, thanks in part to a lot of other great coaches, even some of whom I never directly competed for, like our high school football coach.
That’s not to say these coaches didn’t sometimes yell in frustration or swear because we failed for the 50th time to execute something simple. But the good ones didn’t belittle us. They didn’t ridicule us. And they always talked to us about what we did wrong and why it mattered that we cared enough to do it right.
I know coaches are under intense scrutiny and pressure these days, but the Maryland case is a reminder that we have to change the way we think about toughness if we hope to truly eradicate all kinds of abuse from sports programs.
High school coaches do so much for so little, and in fact, I’d suggest that they actually form a safety net for kids like me who likely would drop out of high school if it weren’t for the lure of athletics. It is a powerful tool, which is why it’s critical that we ensure it isn’t being used to beat our children into submission.
The reason some of these situations drag on for years and don’t get resolved until someone files a lawsuit or a family succeeds in revealing criminal behavior is that we’ve become numb to this behavior in sports.
We accept in athletics what we’d never accept in any other situation. If a math teacher ridiculed a student who forgot his math book the way a basketball coach taunted a kid who forgot the designed play, he’d be punished without any three-month investigation.
If an English teacher punished disruptive students by making them exercise until they puked, she’d be looking for a new job without the benefit of weeks or months of paid leave.
It is possible to instill toughness without abuse. It is possible to admire what coaches do without giving them a free pass to belittle, demean and maybe scar for life young men and women.
We have to learn to distinguish between plain, tough behavior and abuse. Some of those who suffered abuse in Utah’s swim program reported psychological issues long after leaving the program and even the sport.
If we care about high school and collegiate sports because of how they enrich the lives of young people, then we have to care about the student athletes enough to put their health and welfare above winning some games.
If we truly believe prep and college athletics enhance a school and its community, then we have to get serious about eliminating an atmosphere that rewards or glorifies abusive behavior of any kind.
That’s not going to lead to "soft" sports or entitled athletes.
That will, instead, lead to athletics being the uplifting, character-building endeavor that we assert they are.