A few years ago, I went to a college basketball practice with a friend. It seemed a pretty normal practice to me - you know, lots of running, lots of teaching, lots of sneaker squeaking. But as we walked out, my friend's face was flushed and her jaw had dropped wide open.
"I cannot believe that," she said, and she seemed shaken by the experience.
"I cannot believe how vicious that coach was. I've never seen anything like that before. Did you see the way that coach was just yelling at those kids? That was crazy. Wasn't that crazy?"
I should point out there that this was a women's basketball practice. It was not at one of the national powerhouse schools either - this wasn't Pat Summitt at Tennessee or Geno Auriemma at Connecticut or probably any other coach you would know or place you would think about. This was just a regular practice at a regular school on a regular day.
"That was unbelievable," my friend said, because she couldn't stop talking about it. "She was screaming at them at the top of her lungs. You can't do that. If you're a teacher at a college, you can't just scream at students and embarrass them like that. You're not allowed to do that. Are you allowed to do that"
The truth is in sports - especially in college sports - so many of us have just become numb to the methods of coaching. Yes, every so often something especially brazen will happen . Bob Knight will choke a player . Woody Hayes will hit an opponent .a Division II coach like John O'Connor will be fired for shoving and kicking a player . Mike Rice will show up on video acting like a madman, throwing basketballs, shouting out hateful homophobic slurs, grabbing and kicking players.
And when those things happen, sure, there's outrage. Firings. Reassessments. Sports makes it to the news shows. Panelists discuss. People ask questions about priorities and fundamental decency. Of course, it never goes just one way. Soon, people will grow tired of this line of discussion and will rage that we have gotten too soft as a society. The first group will fire back that society has advanced since the caveman days and it has nothing to do with being soft. The second group will fire back and say that their coach once made them swim with alligators and they are better people because of it. And back and forth it will go.
These discussions have nothing to do with Mike Rice acting like an over-caffeinated Great Santini - I don't really see or hear two sides to that argument. The guy went way over the line, he was finally fired, he should have been fired when the Rutgers people first saw that video, and that's all pretty easy.
The harder part comes with harder questions like: Where is the line drawn? Just about everybody agrees that Mike Rice crossed. But where? Did he cross when he used particularly offensive slurs rather than the standard R-rated profanities many coaches use? Did he cross when he threw basketballs at his players' heads and legs rather than getting in their grill and challenging their manhood the way so many coaches do? Did he cross when he physically grabbed the players rather than make them run the stairs until they threw up or smash into each other until they were bruised and beaten? is it some combination of all of these things?
There is nothing simple about these questions. What is fair game for a coach? How far can he or she go? Where does "tough" end and "deranged" begin? The truth is that many college coaches - even those who seem mild mannered and easy going in public - are ruthless in practice. They swear. They rage. They throw basketballs - maybe not at the players the way Rice did, but they throw them anyway. They coach through fear and intimidation as well as love and encouragement. They act in ways that would be unacceptable in pretty much any other setting but a basketball gym or football field or ice rink. Many big-time coaches (most coaches? All coaches?) will tell you it has to be that way.
And, looking back at my own life, some of the teachers and editors and coaches who were toughest on me were people I think about with love, I think of them as people who helped me become an adult. Then again, other teachers and editors and coaches who were toughest on me were, in my mind, jerks who didn't teach me much of anything at all.
When it comes to Mike Rice's video mayhem . sure, it's undemanding to say: That guy has to go. That's the easiest thing in the world. The demanding thing is to talk about how we feel about the coaching culture, where everyday coaches shout and swear and insult in less dramatic and interesting ways than Mike Rice.
When my friend asked me after that practice if that screaming and was typical, I had to be honest with her. I had to say: No, most coaches I've seen in action are much more demonstrative than that.
She said: "Don't you think that's terrible?"
Looking back, I think that's a very interesting question. It's a much harder question to answer than "Should Rutgers fire Mike Rice?"