College Basketball can do betterPosted: April 3, 2013
In my non-blogging life, I do work around gender issues, bullying, and creating a more open, inclusive world. In this work, I see how people bully each other all the time. We like to think that it is “just” kids on the play ground or in the locker room and they will grow out of it. Well, the lessons learned in youth are often learned well and those thoughts and behaviors follow us into adulthood. Those behaviors are reinforced as normal when we are kids and then we know they are acceptable as adults- until someone speaks up and says “No!” this stuff is not ok.
What am I talking about? The news of the firing of Mike Rice as head coach of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Last year, he was suspended and fined for throwing basketballs at players, yelling at them, and using homophobic slurs. That is not acceptable and clearly a suspension, fine, and sensitivity training are not enough (Rutgers has a history of questionable men’s basketball coaches and their decisions). It took the videotape of this abuse coming to the view of the public and an outcry about the incongruent punishment for Rutgers to fire the coach. Does every coach that yells at a player need to be fired? No, but I believe that athletics is a place that we can work to make the world a more equal place.
In the shadow of the upcoming release of 42– about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, I think sports and more specifically college sports is a place to address issues around gender with our athletes. Athletics is a gendered world. Not only are players to perform as athletes, what they do in their sport often says something about what it means to be a man (or a woman) in the larger world. I am writing about men’s college basketball here, but this argument can be made about any team, of any gender, in any sport. We, who watch these sports, and those who play the sports are part of the culture that creates the sports. The game is a time for competition, but not at the expense of our humanity. On the court, I want the action to be fast, the fundamentals to be executed perfectly, and athleticism to be on display. I also want the best athletes on the court. Not the athletes, like in Jackie Robinson’s time, that were the right color and now I don’t want the athletes playing to be the ones that can outlast the coach’s wrath with the least amount of harm or the ones that fit into the “proper” understanding of what it means to be masculine in an uncritical way. Not just the athletes who can take the abuse, who are “man” enough, are the right amount of “straight” should be the ones playing the game. Those are the things I feel Mike Rice (and countless others) teach his team as they are the target of balls thrown at them and homophobic slurs hurled to imply that being gay is bad. The undertones of what it takes to be a real man is evident through anger and violence during what is shown of the Rutgers practice on the video released by ESPN. Well, to me, none of those things make you a man or an athlete, but so often that it how the sport (and thus the masculinity around the sport) was taught to the coach and what it passed on to student-athletes.
There is a WHOLE lot going on around the Rutgers incident. Was Coach Rice just trying to toughen these players up or make the team perform better under pressure (even though their record does not help that argument)? Is this a one off video by a rogue coach? I think this is a moment for a larger conversation about the kind of world we want our sports to exist within. I want sports to be hard hitting on the court. I want the players to give their all and then a little bit more. I want the athletes to play their sport in a world that sees and acknowledges this can happen without bullying, violence, anti-gay slurs, and through masculinity that is about more than anger and aggression. I am also not alone here. There are others doing this work including Hudson Taylor through his foundation Athlete Ally. He is working to make sports more inclusive of people who identify as LGBTQ.
This is a large project. It does not start and end the with firing of Mike Rice. It happens on the field, in the locker rooms, at the little league try outs, when we are watching sports with our friends, and is happening in college athletics research. Donna Duffy at UNCG is exploring how coaches play a role in gender based violence at the high school level. This issues are here, they are real, and we should take the seriously. We need to be talking about how we socialize our young athletes into their sports, how we, as adults, watch sports, and how we expect men and wormen to act within sports and in the world at large.