Bullying Reaches Beyond Schoolhouse Walls

04/10/2013 11:49 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

As the nation sees in former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice what has to be the most repellent on-court demeanor since Bobby Knight, outside observers have voiced their annoyance about the rise of dictatorial coaches. However, the fact remains the coach-as-bully is learned behavior and it starts early.

Interestingly, the bully pulpit often arises not from the coach, but from the parents of the players.

You've seen it before. Every now and then, a news story surfaces about parents banding together to get a coach fired, or an angry adult taking on a coach he or she feels is in error. Is it an unfortunate reality we have to live with, or should parents of student-athletes have to undergo sensitivity training and anti-bullying seminars?

This delicate topic came up in a sports management class I teach. We were discussing Michael Lewis's book, Coach, about his old-school baseball coach and the troubles he encountered with parents of his players. Many of my students are athletes and volunteer coaches, and one of them asked, "Why do parents have to get so involved?"

Good question. Why do parents get so involved, and by involved I mean attempting to "help manage" a team? It is either to gain advantage/favor for one's own child or to guard against other parents who are trying to gain favor/advantage, to indirectly shield your child against another parent's effort to bully or muscle the coach? Parents who seek influence in the spirit of "friendship" with coaches are still engaged in a form of bullying, as there is a bona fide power advantage that parents have over the ultimate tenure of high school coaches. Are either of the above suggested reasons good reason for parents to be involved in the "management" of high school teams? Well, no.

The first thing I thought about was my own experience as a young athlete. I had played baseball through high school and college. My family moved to a new town right before I started high school. When baseball practices started in the spring of my freshman year, it didn't take me long to figure out that the team was decided already. I would fight that and my venerable, god-among-men high school baseball coach for the next four years. It wasn't until my senior year that I became a periodic starter. I know in hindsight that I didn't do myself any favors by challenging my coach.

There were parents who hung around the team. They were at practice and all the games. I never gave it much thought. I was more than happy to let my skills speak for themselves, if only I could be given the chance. My parents were pretty busy. My dad had a more than a full-time job and my step-mom had her hands full with my four younger brothers, ages 2 - 12. My dad made games when he could, which was every once in a while. I was just glad to have him there when he could make it. While my high school experience was mildly disappointing, the disappointment seemed minor in the grand scheme of things. I did, however, start for my college baseball teams for all four years.

By the time I got to be a parent, it had become obvious that some parents were highly skilled at getting things for their kids -- at bullying coaches to help their kids. So, do you just stand by and let that happen, or do you play defense?

Fortunately, I got some help from where I often go when I am seeking insight about the important and relevant things in life: the television program South Park. The "Butterballs" episode of the show takes a thoughtful, hard look at bullying. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's punch line is that bullying isn't just something that happens to kids in grade school. Bullying is part of our culture. Many of us with leverage -- money, power, social status -- will bully. If you have leverage, you sometimes use it, even if you think you are the most fair-minded person you can imagine. In the South Park episode, bullying behavior spans from the school kids to a variety of adult situations, with many of the bullying conversations taking place in the elementary school boys' room. Brilliant stuff.

What should one do about parent bullying of coaches? Nothing. There are some things you just have to live with, and this type of bullying is one of them. Moral suasion programs are likely to have some benefit in the halls of grade schools. You will, however, live a better-adjusted life, if you accept that there are some things you can't do anything about and sometimes, unfortunately, you might be on the wrong side of bullying.

It might be more sensible to recognize the bullies for what they are and trust that their influence will be minimal or maybe even detrimental to their own interests. You can't know the prospective outcomes in these team-coach-parent situations and you might save yourself considerable energy in a context where the payoff is likely to be small anyway. Simply put, you will be playing a game that is so ill structured that if you "win," it will be unclear what it is you have won -- and your winning will have been by accident.