Not just boys being boys

A few weeks ago, Mike Rice, the men’s basketball coach for Rutgers University, was fired after ESPN broadcast a video in which he was seen physically and verbally abusing his players.

Illustration by Suraj Nair.
Illustration by Suraj Nair.

A few weeks ago, Mike Rice, the men’s basketball coach for Rutgers University, was fired after ESPN broadcast a video in which he was seen physically and verbally abusing his players.

Days later, the school’s athletic director, Tim Pernetti, announced his resignation after it was discovered that he’d seen the video last year and, instead of firing Rice, chose to suspend, fine and “rehabilitate” him, according to a National Public Radio report.

Watching the video, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t fired on the spot. Then again, considering the godlike status sports figures enjoy in this country, it isn’t so surprising.

Rice looks like a maniac in the video, repeatedly hitting, shoving and kicking players while shouting homophobic slurs. It was only after ESPN aired it that pressure began to mount on school officials to fire Rice, indicating that they would probably have kept Rice on as long as they had W’s in their column.

Rutger’s president, Robert Barchi, said he didn’t ask to see the video when Pernetti brought it to his attention last year, a decision he now regrets. However, I’d venture a guess that the regret has more to do with the inconvenient press he’s now forced to deal with.

This begs the question of whether the behavior was permitted because it was a men’s team. Was this just boys being boys? I have to believe that if Barchi had been told a coach was physically abusing women players, he wouldn’t have waited a second before looking at the tape.

Women being shoved, kicked and hit is unthinkable—and rightly so. The perpetrator would be hauled into court the very next day. Why is it different with male athletes?

People knew this was going on and did nothing about it, and it doesn’t sound like the students themselves complained. In fact, former player Mike Coburn told the New Jersey Star-Ledger, “Yes, he went overboard. But you can’t get a good feeling for what went down by seeing highlights on ESPN. No one was scared of Coach Rice. We didn’t fear him. We just understood him.”

That’s the problem.

Rice’s players “understood” that this kind of treatment was OK and made them great athletes. Other commentators have said as much, like Roxanne Jones, a CNN columnist who suggested that that’s what big-time sports is all about, so get over it. After all, she says, “the essence of sports will always lie in the Neanderthal within us all.”

She describes how her son joined a basketball team at the age of 10 and faced his own bully of a coach who frequently racially stereotyped and berated the children—yes, children. Jones said the advice she got from professional players was not to worry: “They had all experienced…a Mike Rice…[and] argued that it was important for a young man to learn not to let a bully coach like that break you.”

Would we say that to our young women, take all the abuse you’re given and don’t let it break you? No.

But it’s OK for an adult, an authority figure, to bully young boys and men. We still see it as a rite of passage for boys to be roughed up in order to learn how to be men. Violence is an acceptable counterpart to a boy’s coming of age—that way, we churn out “real” men, not wimps, right?

Don’t get me wrong. Sports should be painful, grueling, agonizing—they should push you past what you think you’re physically and mentally capable of. They should not, however, reduce your humanity and dignity and teach you that taking abuse defines your manhood. If boys are taught this early that violence is OK, that it actually makes you the man you should be, then I’m afraid for them and for their future spouses.

We are a country obsessed with violence. The sports field is just one more battlefield to conquer, and it’s our boys who suffer. It’s time we dropped our double standards and let go of archaic ideas of boys being boys and acknowledge once and for all that bullying is never acceptable, no matter how many W’s it gives you.

Just look at how well it turned out for Rice.