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Our World

November 5, 2013

Coaches grapple with line between discipline and abuse

(Continued)

What disturbed former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma most about the endless replays of the Rutgers footage was that the players appeared so inured to the treatment that they didn't fight back.

"These guys are warriors - college athletes trained to push their bodies to the limit, yet they didn't feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves," said Huma, president of the National College Players Association, an advocacy group for college athletes across the county. "You wonder where else this has happened, where players feel they can't stick up for themselves."

If there's a takeaway from the ugly episode, Diana Cutaia, founder of Coaching Peace Consulting, hopes it awakens athletes to their right to "push back" against extreme tactics and convinces athletic directors to intervene when coaches simply rage rather than instruct.

"It's scary to be an 18-year-old and be in a situation where your college coach has national attention, is very powerful," Cutaia said. "You're going to go and say, 'He dropped the F-bomb on me three times,' and most likely somebody's going to say, 'Suck it up!' But that child has every right to say, 'I don't deserve to be treated this way.'"

In the past, college athletes bombarded with abuse might have quit the team or transferred. Today, they have other recourses, such as a smartphone or the 140-character global megaphone that is Twitter.

In the case of Georgetown's women's basketball, Hogshead-Maker applauds the players who lodged the complaints about their coach's verbal abuse, the audio of which was captured on a cellphone and aired by WJLA (Channel 7).

"I can tell you, that took a lot of guts," Hogshead-Makar said. "Scholarship athletes have very little power. Very few have multiyear scholarships, so if they have a bad year or get injured, it can be over. For many of these athletes, it's their ticket to education - not just a ticket to the NBA or NFL - but to education."

While a recording of an ear-blistering rant may be an accurate snapshot of one heated moment, it rarely reflects the complex relationship that underpins it. Moreover, Thompson noted, it doesn't reflect the vast majority of coaches' methods.

"What can be inaccurate here is the perception that every coach behind closed-doors is a maniac and that the real world is just now finding out," said Thompson, a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches' board of directors.

Nonetheless, ubiquitous cellphones and social media have brought new scrutiny of coaching methods.

Said Ackerman: "Obviously we're living in an age when things can be recorded. That wasn't the case 30, 20, 10 years ago. Coaches can't even be confident anymore that the locker room is a confidential place. I think every coach in the country has got to be paying attention to this."

So do athletic directors.

Cutaia, who held the post at Division III Wheelock College in Boston, believes athletic directors should observe practices, give feedback and emphasize the university's values.

"We're not training coaches around the ideas of building character and teaching skills," Cutaia lamented. "We're not even teaching sports anymore; we're teaching how to win games."

Yet that's often the mandate for coaches of Division I teams that pay the athletic department's bills, keep alumni donation flowing and serve, in many ways, as the university's public face. In such cases, nurturing becomes a luxury.

Says Hogshead-Makar: "If the dynamic is that the coach has to win or they're out, that winning is an economic imperative because if you don't win 80 percent of your games you're in the hole $10 million, if you're not going to keep your job if you don't keep up those numbers - you're looking at abuse right there."

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