Playing college basketball was one of the best experiences of my life. I'm nearly 30 now, far removed from my days of frat parties and finals weeks, but I cherish my hoops career at Stanford as if it happened yesterday. Putting on that jersey; taking that floor; hearing those fans. I don't think I'll ever again be able to replicate that feeling of playing the sport I love on a national stage, on a team with all my friends, in front of a crowd of all our friends. I can still tap into that excitement by simply closing my eyes. It remains that vivid, even after so many years.
Yes, my road from orientation to graduation at Stanford was formative and unforgettable, but that doesn't mean it was easy. Like any athletic pursuit, mine was filled with failures, frustrations, and more than a few disagreements with my coaches. There were many bumps in the road, no doubt, but the teammates, the friendships, and the battles made it all worthwhile. I've never learned more about myself than I did playing college basketball, and frankly, I've never had so much damn fun in my life.
It is through this lens that I watched the video of coach Mike Rice that has recently made the rounds on the Internet. At the time the video was taken, Rice was the head basketball coach at Rutgers University, though that changed quite promptly after ESPN showed the now-notorious footage. That is to be expected, I suppose, whenever a coach is filmed during practice screaming expletives at his players (including homophobic slurs), grabbing them by their jerseys, pushing them around the court, kicking one of them in the back during a drill, and hurling basketballs at their heads and bodies with a force and precision that would make John Elway blush.
I now play professional basketball in Israel, and in the locker room the day after it aired, this video was a main topic of conversation. Across the board, my teammates' reactions were the same. First and foremost, the obvious: the coach's behavior was crazy, abusive and completely unacceptable. That was not even up for debate, and accordingly, we did not debate it. The other main reaction that we shared was a bit more visceral. We all phrased it differently, but to summarize, each one of us said something along the lines of, "If I'd played for that guy in college, I would've knocked his ass out!"
Of course, none of us would have actually hit our coach (I hope), but we would all like to think that we would have taken some kind of action to change the situation. We all said we would have, and we all meant it, but the reality is that it's quite easy for us, in our professional locker room, to puff our chests out in this defiant manner. Why? Because we don't play for that guy, thankfully, but even more so, because we're pros now -- pros with resources. We have agents. We have a players union. We have a general manager. We get paid. We're adults.
As pro athletes, each with our own personal and professional support system, we're used to having the autonomy to stand up for ourselves and take control of our situations in the ways we see fit. We can talk to the media. We can file complaints with the federation. We can leave our team. We still work for our organizations, obviously, but we also have the ability to look out for ourselves and our professional careers, should we need to.
In college, however, it doesn't go like that. When you're part of a college program, most likely on scholarship, you're expected to fall in line and do what you're told is best for the team and the university, no matter what. In some ways, it's an effective means to develop discipline and promote unity, as long as the principles being instilled are positive ones. But that's surely not the case when abusive treatment of players goes unchecked by higher-ups.
In these instances where athletic directors and institutions sweep inappropriate behavior under the rug, like at Rutgers, the players have very little recourse against it. After all, they're just kids, unpaid and loyal to their schools and teammates, with no labor rights to speak of, some barely 18 years-old. They want to grow, to learn, and to succeed in their sports. So what would happen if they spoke out publicly and/or privately against the coach? Or if they revealed his exploits to other student-athletes? Or if their parents protested to the NCAA?
Would they be considered traitors in their community? Would they ride the bench for the rest of their careers, thereby affecting their ability to one day play professionally? Would they be labeled as bad eggs? Would they transfer somewhere else, knowing they'd have to sit out a year before competing again? Would the coach throw another ball at their head?
I don't know any of the Rutgers players, or how they felt about their coach, but I know the way he treated them involved bullying, intimidation, and abuse. There is no room for that in the sports world, especially amongst student-athletes.
Instead of dealing with this type of treatment, those kids should be given every opportunity to mature, learn, evolve, and most importantly, enjoy the experience of being a college athlete, like I did at Stanford. Sure, from time to time their coaches will scream at them, frustrate them, and unfavorably compare them to their grandmothers with regards to physical ability and athletic prowess.
Stuff like that is normal; the type of "tough love" that is a part of many effective coaching styles. To step over that line toward blatant abuse, though, is not normal. In fact, it's inexcusable, and it does the student-athlete a great disservice, on and off the court.
If it does happen, like with Mike Rice, it's up to athletic directors and universities who are aware of the problem to take action to protect their players. College athletics are a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry, driven by amateur athletes, and the least the system can provide is some checks and balances to ensure that these athletes are treated with the respect and dignity they've earned. And, ultimately, it might fall on the NCAA to reform the system completely, so that players aren't so powerless to begin with.
As it stands now, all these parties need to take their responsibilities seriously, because these athletes deserve to enjoy and grow from their college basketball experiences. And, moreover, they deserve to be defended in the event of unfortunate situations like this one. Especially when they're largely unable to defend themselves.
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