Last week, Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice was fired for physically and verbally abusing players on his team. Hard to believe from the above photo, right?
As someone who does not follow or know anything about sports, I initially assumed I had nothing to say about anyone who could be labeled a “coach” at a school labeled “Rutgers.” But in addition to being a non-sports person, I am also a feminist. And the Rice case touches on several themes that feminists are well acquainted with.
Most people are outraged about Rice’s actions. However, there are some, both fans and media, who have asked the question, “Why didn’t the players report him?”
First of all, if you put yourself in their shoes, it becomes pretty obvious why the players didn’t report Rice. We place athletes on a high pedestal, but these are college kids. They are 18 and 19 years old. They depend on scholarships that are up for renewal every year. Mike Rice was an authority figure that these players answered to directly, and they feared retaliation for speaking up.
More important, though, is that it’s completely irrelevant how the players reacted. Mike Rice’s verbal and physical abuse was the actions of one man. They were directed at players whose reaction did not and could not change Rice’s actions.
It’s always tempting to go down Victim Blame Avenue, because it suggests that something could have been done to stop the actions of an abuser. It would be more comfortable to live in a world in which that was true; if we could take specific actions to prevent such things. You can wear a helmet to prevent head injuries. You can eat citrus to prevent scurvy, which should be helpful to all the 18th-century sailors reading this article. (Hey, don’t mention it, guys. Just save some hard tack for me.) Unfortunately, we can’t take the same kind of preventative measures when we’re talking about people and behavior. Anything I do short of building up Dwayne Johnson-level muscles and physically restraining people won’t guarantee that another person will act a certain way toward me.
Moreover, if the players had reported him, what then? Rice’s actions would remain the same. It’s a red herring to talk about the victims’ responses to events they were powerless to stop.
A Culture of Hypermasculinity
Even as someone who has watched a grand total of maybe two hours of sports in her life, I know that this culture exists. Among other offenses, Rice yelled misogynistic and homophobic slurs at his players, which you can see in the video and the above screenshot. No one would stand for that in any other workplace setting or school setting, but my guess is that Rice’s players struggled when Rice’s words crossed a line. That’s because these types of slurs are not uncommon in men’s sports. Until very recently, this kind of behavior from coaches was shrugged off as tough love—a good old-fashioned way to keep your players in line. I haven’t seen any research suggesting that invoking fear of femininity leads to better playing, but what do I know? I don’t have much experience getting the sports ball into the sports-ball receptacle. I do have experience with misogyny, and there is plenty of it in Mike Rice and the entire tough-love school of thought.
The good news is that public opinion on tough love in sports has shifted in recent years, and methods like these are now generally frowned upon by both fans and institutions.
A Broken System
When the Rice news initially broke in late 2012, Rutgers fined Rice $50,000 and suspended him for three games—a slap on the wrist, or as I assume sports fans call it, the sports wrist. It was only when the actual video of Rice’s bullying surfaced that the school fired him. Why? Because Rutgers, like so many institutions before it, chose their reputation over their students, up until the very minute they could no longer get away with it. Although Rice did not have a massive number of wins to his name—a shady but common reason for keeping an unfit coach around—it was more advantageous for the school to let Rice off with a warning rather than weather the scandal of firing a coach, despite his literally throwing basketballs at his players, as is in the above screenshot. Not taken into account: the students Rice bullied, or the ones he might bully in the future.
Feminists, as well as people who have ever paid attention to anything, know that this abuse of power is not unique to the world of sports. An institution with enough power to sweep something under the rug will usually do it; massive corporations, the Catholic Church. This sweeping comes at the expense of the less powerful: the victims.
However unfamiliar with sports I may be, I am familiar with power struggles. It may sound silly to look at athletes—or as I like to call them, sports folk—as underdogs. But often, they’re getting screwed over by the huge, bottom-line-driven entities that own them. And feminists have a longstanding tradition of standing up for the little guy, even if the little guy is a 6'5'' athlete.