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Rutgers Basketball and the Evolution of 'Tough Love'

The reaction to video footage of the tirades by Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice suggests that the public is no longer willing to give coaches broad leeway when they turn to abusive tactics.

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Calls continued to mount Thursday for the athletic director and even the president of Rutgers University in New Jersey to be fired for not taking tough measures sooner against men’s basketball coach Mike Rice, who was fired Wednesday for his violent treatment of players after ESPN brought video footage to light.

Many see the initial discipline Mr. Rice received as a slap on the wrist and suggest it points to a double standard in the treatment of big-time coaches compared with other educators. But the incident is also prompting dialogue about broader societal issues – including the tolerance of antigay and gender-based slurs in sports, and whether the desire to build "toughness" in athletes too often turns into a destructive stream of negative feedback.

The reaction to the video at Rutgers and nationwide, some say, shows signs of shifting social views on what is good, hard-nosed coaching designed to push players to improve and behavior that is simply petulant bullying.

Years ago, Rice’s behavior might have been shrugged off by many as “tough love,” but this time, “there was a certain sense of outrage” expressed by everyone from sports commentators to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Sport in Society, which advocates for social responsibility in sports.

While Rice’s behavior may have been extreme, the content of his tirades against players points to aspects of school athletics that should be challenged and reformed, Mr. Lebowitz says.

Not only did he use antigay slurs, but he also used demeaning epithets suggesting that his players were acting like women. “It raises the question of the construct of manhood in athletics and elsewhere,” Lebowitz says. “There’s a code of toughness in men’s athletics,” with players perhaps not coming forward about Rice because of a fear of being thought of as wimpy or unmanly.

For the same reason, pro athletes rarely come out as gay before retiring, Lebowitz says.

Many students who are gay or don’t conform to gender stereotypes don’t find welcoming environments in physical education classes or sports teams, long before they start college. More than half of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students ages 13 to 20 were bullied or harassed in PE class, and more than a quarter of LGBT student athletes were harassed or assaulted while participating with a team, according to a 2011 national survey of more than 8,000 students by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

While coaches often pride themselves on being mentors to students, 75 percent of LGBT students said they were uncomfortable talking to their PE teachers or coaches about LGBT issues.

The Rice incident “speaks to the work we need to do [in K-12] to make sure our coaches and physical education teachers are not emulating that kind of behavior, and are creating more respectful environments,” says Robert McGarry, GLSEN’s director of education.

GLSEN offers the Team Respect Challenge, giving tools to teams that pledge to create a respectful and inclusive environment. At Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., for example, every team has taken the challenge, thanks largely to coach and social studies teacher Chris Murray, Mr. McGarry says.

Negativity in coaching is a long-standing cycle that needs to be interrupted, says Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Positive Coaching Alliance.

“Most people coach the way they were coached, or the way they see big-time coaches on TV coach…. There’s a thought that you have to be negative or hard on players.”

His organization emphasizes that coaches can be intense without being negative – and that they’ll get better results by filling their players’ “emotional tanks” with positive reinforcement, so that they’ll be ready to learn from legitimate criticism.

Getting players out of their comfort zone is important to help them grow, Mr. Thompson says, but from sports psychology research it’s clear that “great coaches do it not by intimidation and contempt” such as Rice exhibited, but by “letting them know they believe in them, encouraging them, pushing them in an appropriate way.”

With 10 chapters around the country, the group gives about 1,500 workshops a year to coaches, parents, students, and youth sports leaders, and demand is growing, Thompson says.

He also sees a growing recognition of for college coaches who bring home wins through positive coaching. Coaches such as Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth University are “in big demand,” he says, because they build up and get the most out of their players rather than just relying on superstars.

The culture may be shifting, but it still “allows and excuses situations that put athletics before basic human dignity,” and players should have more protections to prevent future situations like the one at Rutgers, says Ramogi Huma, founder and president of the National College Players Association, which advocates for reforms in college athletics.

Most of the players under Rice at Rutgers were “willing to sustain physical abuse rather than risk their scholarship” to defend themselves or speak up about it, he says.

Those who did transfer away from Rice’s team were subject to an NCAA rule that takes away a year of eligibility, and that should be retroactively corrected Mr. Huma says. Players should be allowed to transfer once without penalty, he advocates. The NCAA should also make it mandatory for university athletics staff to report suspected abuse of players, he says, and should set up a way for players to report anonymously.

His group is among those calling for Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and President Robert Barchi to be fired. “It seemed as though they hoped [the videos] would never be made public. They put that in front of the well being of their players,” he says.

More than 50 faculty members have called for Mr. Pernetti’s dismissal, and at least 28 have called for Mr. Barchi to resign, citing not only the handling of Rice’s behavior but also a "continued pattern of insensitivity and arrogance toward issues of diversity," the Associated Press reports.

The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, authored by congressmen from New Jersey, would require colleges receiving federal student aid to create policies that prohibit harassment of students by fellow students, faculty, or staff. Unlike many state laws, it would explicitly ban harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.

Tyler Clementi killed himself while a student at Rutgers after his roommate watched him via webcam in an encounter with another man and tweeted about it – an incident that helped accelerate a strong antibullying law in New Jersey.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo is a staff writer and national news reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She focuses on education -- at all stages of life.