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Op-Ed: Rutgers Waited Too Long To Fire Abusive Coach


Earlier this week, after Kevin Ware's terrible injury, we spoke with coaches about how they and their team dealt with major adversities. Since then, a darker side of the business has been in the headlines. A video of Rutgers men's basketball practices went viral. It showed Coach Mike Rice pushing and kicking players, throwing basketballs at their heads, demeaning them with homophobic slurs. Rutgers became aware of that recording last December. It suspended Coach Rice for three games, fined him $50,000, and ordered him to attend anger-management training. Then yesterday, after the tape went public, Rutgers fired Mike Rice.

That behavior is clearly over the line, but lots of coaches yell and curse and shove. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Rutgers anthropology professor Lionel Tiger writes he's been a witness to too many lawsuits involving fraternities to be complacent about the ever-lurking possibility that cruelty and loyalty become fatefully confused. So coaches, players, where do you draw the line? Tell us your story - 800-989-8255; email, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lionel Tiger is Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University emeritus. His latest book is "God's Brain," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

LIONEL TIGER: Hi. Glad to be here, of course.

CONAN: And there's a couple of different aspects to this story, one of which involves Rutgers and its administration in its decision-making process. The other, though, involves sort of the culture of sports. And - well, again, clearly over the line here, but not - different in kind, not type.

TIGER: Sports has become show business, and it's not trivial that the sports - or athletic director at Rutgers had prior professional experience in television or other communications. I'm not saying it was a bad thing, but it's what's the thing of the day. And so coaches, including the hapless one at Rutgers - in basketball, are under tremendous pressure to have a winning team. They want that for their own pride; they want that for the skill of their players; they want that to advance themselves in their own program. And the university wants it. It helps the alumni; it helps the fundraising. It makes everybody feel good. I'm not a particularly severe sports fan, but certainly when Rutgers had a - an athletic success, I was affected by that. And so it's kind of unfair, in a way, to blame the system for being the product of our own desires, our own interests and our entertainment dollar, as it were.

CONAN: Yeah. You point out that after a big football victory, the score was flashed on the signs on the New Jersey Turnpike.

TIGER: It was quite remarkable because everybody was eagerly awaiting the results of that game; which was an important game in the fantasy life of all people in New Jersey and the turnpike people, who decided that it was only appropriate to put the score on the turnpike signage. Maybe it was a health hazard or a danger hazard. But in fact, I think countless people were both pleased and touched by it.

CONAN: And then there are the kids who since very young age are taught to - been taught to respect and listen to their coaches, and they need to please their coaches to get playing time to win. They like to win too, and at least at the collegiate level to cling to whatever hope they may have of a professional career.

TIGER: That's certainly the issue, and it's quite clear that we're not going to see any change in the existence of sports, the sports people like. People watch countless sports. One of the few sections of newspapers which hasn't declined, markedly, in page number is the sports section. And there's something in that sports experience that's very interesting and vital to people who are prepared to pay hundreds of dollars to sit in a stadium and shout on the behalf of one group of people as opposed to another.

What is required as in any group with a high flow of movement, energy and activity is a kind of discipline, a kind of awareness of what's appropriate. And what I think will turn out to be crucial for the current Rutgers president, who's new, was that he didn't watch the tape until Tuesday, just a few days ago. And had he seen it, I can't imagine that any sensible man who'd already - also be in the medical profession would say this is acceptable.

So there are two elements here. One was the university thought, well, we didn't go the usual cheap American route. We'll provide therapy. Everything in America is subject to therapy, and here, this individual, who is clearly beyond management, was supposed to have a course in anger management. Well, that was beyond naive. It was dangerous because it allowed him to go back into the field and do what he clearly was doing, whether he knew what he was doing or not, and he shouldn't have been doing.

CONAN: Some people have found it incredible literally that the president of Rutgers University would be involved in a process that involved outside counsel and investigations of the second most prominent individual at his university - the first one, of course, being the football coach - and that he never got around to watching the actual tape.

TIGER: He'll have to speak for himself. I'm a former faculty member there. I've had good relations with presidents of the university whom I've admired and largely respected for what they did. This was a gross error of scheduling. And I guess he's new to the job and he may have been relying too heavily on his athletics director and on his feeling that this is a good university. The athletic program is rich, and yeasty and zesty, and why could it be - how could it be so bad?

CONAN: And trusted the judgment of that athletics director, who's in the process of negotiating a switch to a different conference and a much more lucrative one.

TIGER: That's another factor that always plays into college athletics, which is the money.

CONAN: And that is no small thing, yet. We have to get back to the kids on the basketball team and the humiliation they endured, and abuse - I don't think that's too strong a word - at the hands of their coach.

TIGER: There's no question it's abuse. There's no question that it changes them from people who are good citizens, who tolerate no abuse of human beings to people who, say, well, sometimes it's worth it. Sometimes it's necessary. Sometimes, in fact, it's desirable to be abused because it strengthens you. And there is after all a kind of notion that, if things are tough out there, the tough get going. And that is, in some areas, possibly correct but certainly not when dealing with youngsters and certainly not when dealing with something as completely inessential as the final score of Louisville versus Rutgers, or Duke versus North Carolina, though I'm sure people will fire off letters immediately, telling me I'm wrong on that subject.

CONAN: Well, we want to hear from coaches and players. Where do you draw the line? 800-989-9255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Steely(ph), and Steely is with us from Howe in Indiana.

STEELY: Hi. How's it going?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

STEELY: I've been a long time listener, so I'm excited to be on air.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. What's your story?

STEELY: Well, I remember when I played basketball in high school. We played this team more than once. And I just remember their coach being very aggressive in a very derogatory sense. And I remember the one time he got very frustrated, and even shoved his player into the sideline stairs - er, um, chairs, causing him to trip. And I mean, this was in front of everybody at the game. I just - it always seemed like just too far, I guess.

CONAN: And what happened in that circumstance?

STEELY: I don't - not a whole lot. I mean, it kind of - some people intervened to help calm the coach down. But, you know, not - I mean, that was about it. It was, kind of, taken care of quickly, I guess.

CONAN: And, well, how did it - what about the kid?

STEELY: The kid was fine. Like, I don't know if it makes it worse, but the kid was actually the coach's own son. I don't know if that made the coach feel it was more OK or not. But I remember he yelled at all his players, but I just remember specifically him being that aggressive in front of everybody.

CONAN: And toughest on his own son.

STEELY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Yeah. I think that may not be that unusual. Maybe pushing somebody into chair might be unusual, but toughest on his own son maybe not. Thanks very much for the call, Steely.

STEELY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I think, Lionel Tiger, you say you're not much of a sports fan. You and I, though, are probably old enough to remember the great, at one time, Ohio State football coach, Woody Hayes, clocking a player from the opposing team as he ran down the sideline.

TIGER: Look, these coaches are dealing with an immense amount of data. Everybody scrutinizes their behavior. They get enormous amounts of money compared to anybody else at the university, including, often, the president. And so they're merely many good craftsmen or craftswomen if they pay attention to how quickly somebody runs up and down the field. They want to know that. And the next step is, of course, if somebody is running very quickly up and down the field, trip them.

CONAN: Yeah.

TIGER: And that's where suddenly a sport and a glorious afternoon or evening becomes despicable and very fun - funnily enough, troubling, in an almost cosmological sense.

CONAN: We're speaking with Lionel Tiger, Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University emeritus. His most recent book is "God's Brain." He wrote an op-ed called "The Rutgers Coach Had to Go" in December. It appears in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal. You can fund a link to it at our website. Well, maybe not. Wall Street Journal has a subscription policy, so maybe we're not able to link to it. But anyway, you could try to get to it at our website at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Diana is on the line with us from Boulder.


CONAN: Hi, Diana.

DIANA: Hi. I was - I played four years of college basketball at a Division I program. I last two years, been one of the top 20 teams in the country, I coached for a couple of years at a Division I program. So I understand the demands and the stresses that coaches deal with. But, you know, our coach was demanding of us. She pushed us. I've had times where, you know, she's gotten into my face. But she was never demeaning. She was never insulting of our character (unintelligible). So, I mean, I will be curious to know what you guys think the difference between men and women's coaching and style, and how those come into play.

CONAN: Lionel Tiger, you're the anthropologist. I'll throw that to you.

TIGER: But you're the man too, so you have an equal responsibility. Men, as we can see from elements of the military, for example, young men in particular are willing and often very able to take on challenges to their peace of mind, the physical safety, their moral integrity in the name of having a good reputation in the name of being a Marine, being an Army Ranger, being all those heroic things.

And I think that men are much more likely to put up with stuff than women. And this is a growth over generalization. But on the other hand, if you look at the training procedures, again, of the U.S. Marines, the Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, these are young men who do astonishing things that are incomprehensible to outsiders, who are willing to endure pain and suffering literally, not necessarily because they're bullied but because they want to achieve what it is they're being asked to achieve.

Now, one can understand in the military, where some of these characters have to go out and kill bin Laden, or do other things that are really quite complex, dangerous and require a kind of extreme precision of function. But it's not clear, and I know there will be people who object to this, that women not only do this but they don't care as much. And so, yes, at Rutgers, for example, to come back to women's basketball, we had an outstanding team for a number of years and everyone was just proud of that team as of the male teams.

And there was no sense that the coach, who is a very talented woman, abused, in any way, her players. In fact, she adored them, it seemed, and they her. I'm not prepared to say there is no sex difference here or there is a sex difference. But the fact is the case we're having to deal with now and the case of the Indiana coach, Bobby Knight, these are cases involving males. And I think if we look, even at fraternities and sororities, the initiation ceremonies, if ceremonies they are, in fraternities are far more dangerous and demeaning than those for females.

Again, this may change as times goes on. But for the moment, I think we have to acknowledge that - a book - the first book I wrote, "Men in Groups." When we have men in groups, that's a danger zone.

CONAN: Diana, what do you think?

DIANA: It's a very interesting point. I - my first thought would be - is that a difference simply because there is stereotype that women can't handle it. If you were a pushy women at heart, you were to be - let's say he were the coach of a women's basketball team. And, you know, definitely not the physical aspect of things, so I don't think any man would get away with that. But if he were to speak to them in the way that he was speaking to his players, would it have still been - would his players still accepted it as the norm or would someone probably have come forward a lot sooner, you know, looking at (unintelligible). What would women be capable of being pushed to if they were actually put in those situations (unintelligible) they rarely are?

CONAN: Diana, thanks very much. I wanted to end with this email that we have from Claire: I was a high school teacher, commended several times as the most positive, involved, energetic, resourceful and encouraging teacher in my subject area, but was asked to resign when I flapped a football player student who refused to stop arguing during a test, so that I could help. This fact is on my state record and will make ever getting a teaching position much more difficult. I worked with teachers, especially physical ed., who were far more and more often physical, even frightening. I'm appalled at the imbalance.

So that's another aspect that, perhaps, we ought to look into. Lionel Tiger, thank you so much for your time today.

TIGER: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Lionel Tiger, the Darwin professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, emeritus. His latest book, "God's Brain," and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY and Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see again on Monday. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.