What exactly separates Bob Knight from Mike Rice?
For the uninformed, Mike Rice is essentially a playground bully masquerading as a collegiate basketball coach. Leaked footage from numerous Rutgers practices show Rice patrolling the court, hurling insensitive slurs, basketballs and temper tantrums at his players. The slightest infraction on the part of players was anecdotally enough to set Rice off; his vengeance was enough to cause numerous players to quit. In a quirk of NCAA power management, however, abused players who wanted to escape would have to go to Rice to get approval for their transfers. You can imagine, then, why very few were able to take that route.
When I first watched the leaked videos, I was utterly shocked. Any athlete will tell you that the unhinged, angry and scary coaching mode lies in the arsenal of every single coach, used mainly as a motivating tactic or a change of pace. With Rice, it seemed to be his only mode; his manic antics extended to the court (with his treatment of officials and opposing teams) and even beyond (an ESPN report claims that he even abused kids at a summer camp for coming in to the gym late). I think I speak fairly when I say that the game is no place for such craziness…
And yet, the videos seemed eerily similar to lowlights from the career of the legendary (or notorious, depending on your point of view) Bob Knight. Knight was undoubtedly a brilliant coach, with a sterling win-loss record following him wherever he coached. However, the dark side to the Bob Knight picture was his penchant for abusing players. Over his years at Indiana and Texas Tech, Knight was continually reprimanded for physically and verbally tearing into his players, often with disastrous consequences. In fact, an instance of player abuse was what eventually doomed his coaching career.
Yet, despite many documented instances of Knight abusing players, up until his final game Knight generally escaped with minimal punishment for his actions. Why does he get a pass when Rice goes down in flames?
Personally, I think it is because deep down, America subscribes to a very Machiavellian view on sports. If a coach gets results and gets his teams to win (which Knight was consistently able to do), then most of the stuff that goes on under his watch is swept under the rug. It is when a coach fails to get results that the transgressions are truly punished. It begs the question whether or not the results of this sordid saga would be different if Rutgers had just played in the Final Four, for example.
More troubling to me is the erosion of the rights of the student-athlete. The NCAA loves to trumpet how much its student-athletes achieve on a yearly basis. However, they routinely gloss over the fact that these athletes are at the complete whim and mercy of their coaches. The coaches determine who gets scholarships, which are for many the only means of affording a higher education.
With the power of the purse comes avenues for all kinds of abuse; the age-old maxim is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Many athletes get sucked into a cycle from which there is no escape. The inequity when comparing athletes to coaches is startling: Coaches routinely back out of contracts, stab their employers in the back, negotiate in bad faith and act like Mike Rice. Players can do none of these things, for their eligibility and livelihoods are at stake. None of this makes any sense from an outside perspective. But then again, nothing the NCAA does ever makes sense.
In the end, the outrage over Rice (and the inaction of Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti) will resonate for another week and most likely fade away. But the root of the problem—the absolute power in the hands of bully coaches—will not go away until someone (NCAA, I’m looking at you) comes in to intervene. My fear is that it will take something even more dramatic than Rice’s silliness on camera for true change to come about.
Meanwhile, we have the NCAA men’s basketball national championship to neatly distract us from the things that truly matter. Enjoy, everyone.
Vignesh Venkataraman won’t put up with bullies anymore. Join him in his campaign at viggy “at” stanford.edu.