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Now that the NCAA tournament is over and passions about everyone’s favorite basketball team are not running as high, we need to have a conversation about coaches’ abusive treatment of black athletes.
In late March, when Michigan State and Bradley University were in a dead heat during the NCAA basketball semifinals, the actions of coach Tom Izzo on Michigan State’s sideline brought fans to their feet. Freshman sensation Aaron Henry was about to reach the team huddle during a timeout when his coach, Izzo, fists clenched, walked out to berate him, pointing his finger a few centimeters from Henry’s nose, and then proceeded to yell at him in front of thousands in the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Millions across the country watched the fracas on their television and computer screens. Izzo continued to violate the player’s personal space throughout the timeout; other players had to restrain Izzo, who offered no apologies for the incident.
In interviews, Izzo and members of the team seemed to dismiss the incident as tough love, a lesson that Henry needed to learn, to push him to do better. “What’s wrong with challenging a kid that makes some mistakes?” Izzo said in a press conference after the game. But Izzo’s body language during that outburst gave him away. His tirade did not appear to be about tough love so much as intimidation and bullying — and he’s not the first to use (and defend) it as a teaching tool.
One of the winningest and most celebrated coaches, Bob Knight of Indiana and Texas Tech universities, was notorious for his aggressive behavior toward students, referees and others. Many remember when Knight head-butted one of his star players, who was seated on the bench. A spokesman called it an accident. The player’s reaction to the head-butt — caught on a video, which I can no longer find online but saw in the past repeatedly — suggests that he was angry. University leaders fired Knight in 2000 for his physical and verbal abuse of a player, but his abuse involved just about anyone — police, referees, university staff, hotel staff, reporters — anyone.
And he’s not the only coach to use abuse. Rutgers University fired men’s basketball coach Mike Rice in 2013 after a video surfaced of Rice kicking and hurling balls at players, calling them homophobic slurs and verbally harassing them. During this year’s women’s NCAA basketball tournament, the University of North Carolina placed its women’s team’s head coach, Sylvia Hatchell, who is white, on administrative leave after parents complained of racially insensitive remarks being made to their children. The New York Times reported “that Hatchell had warned that a loss to Louisville could lead to ‘nooses’ … and that the coach had once urged players to do a ‘tomahawk chop’ war cry.”
Verbal abuse is a part of the game we have to change.
In a 2016 report on racial inequities in NCAA Division I college sports, Shaun Harper, a University of Southern California professor of education, and his research team found that “during the 2014-15 academic school year, Black men were 2.5% of undergraduate students, but 56.3% of football teams and 60.8% of men’s basketball teams.” Meanwhile, white men comprised nearly 75 percent of all head coaches, according to a 2018 San Antonio Express News analysis of NCAA data. Whether coaches acknowledge it or not, the power differentials that exist between white people and everyone else are on steroids in collegiate basketball.
While all athletes, regardless of race, can be subjected to bullying, we are living in an era in which whites seem empowered to put blacks in their place. As role models, coaches need to be mindful that their vile behaviors can exacerbate power dynamics in mundane situations. When I see Izzo’s finger in Henry’s face, I’m reminded of Jennifer Schute, aka “BBQ Becky,” whose inflated sense of authority compelled her to call the cops on a black family barbecuing in Oakland, California, in 2018. When I see the white coach screaming at the black player, I’m reminded of all the times white people have revealed their sense of privilege by calling the police to deal with black people, assuming, so often correctly, that the law will be on their side. I’m reminded of the aching pain of unequal treatment and opportunity.
Living his professional life on one of the biggest stages in U.S. sports, Izzo has a responsibility as an educator to model authentic leadership, especially in a time of racial division and discord. Instead, he showed little when he sought to correct Henry by humiliating him.
What many coaches fail to recognize is that if you are black, you have Izzos all around you; black men have no shortage of this kind of “challenge.” Videos leak periodically of teachers haranguing black students in front of their peers, seemingly as motivational strategy. My (least) favorite is footage of a Baltimore teacher caught yelling, “You’re idiots! (inaudible)… get an education! Do you want to be a punk a** n***** who gets shot?” That teacher no longer works for the district, thanks in part to the outrage the video sparked. The latest viral video is of Corinne Terrone, a former Hamden School employee, shown spitting and launching racial slurs at a black family in March at an East Haven, Connecticut, ShopRite, in front of her own children and other shoppers. At home and school, black children are more likely to receive corporal punishment. These may seem like extreme cases to some. But someone doesn’t have to be actually called the n-word to be treated like one — on a basketball court, at work, in a grocery store, in class and at home.
Racism endures primarily through silent acceptance and complicity. In his on-air commentary, ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt dismissed the Izzo episode, defending Izzo’s behavior as holding Henry “accountable,” advocating against coddling people so they never have to hear “mean things” and calling out Izzo’s critics as people who didn’t want to know the context of his actions as a successful coach. But as a privileged white man, he is ignoring the context around a belligerent white coach with power chewing out a young black athlete on national television. Izzo probably yells at all his athletes — black and white — but the attention given to the incident with Henry shows how accepting Americans of all races are of an unequal status quo.
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Coaches and media personalities who mistake harassment for teaching can learn from the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who launched a movement when he refused to take a knee for the national anthem in 2016, demonstrating true leadership. “This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way,” he told the media in his first public appearance after failing to stand for the anthem in three preseason games. “This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that, and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
The racial harassment that black athletes are subjected to in their daily lives infects the basketball courts and football fields as well. What is considered good coaching would be harassment in most other contexts. There is no professor on the campus of Michigan State University who can do what Izzo regularly does to his players — for a sound reason: It’s not educational. Can you imagine a professor yelling and pointing in a student’s face for making mistakes? If Izzo makes a mistake, does the president of the university get in his face? Probably not. Putting a time clock on the wall somehow makes harassment disappear. Violence, and, in particular, racialized violence in sports, is so accepted that we laud its biggest perpetrators.
The knee-jerk rebuttal is that the player didn’t seem to mind. If he or she doesn’t say anything, then it must be okay. Acceptance of bullying doesn’t make it right. Coaches have extraordinary power over athletes’ lives, particularly over those who want to turn pro. Coaches determine how much playing time athletes receive, and playing time provides athletes opportunities to audition for the pros. The fear of a coach ruining an athlete’s career is real.
The power that coaches have over student-athletes is exacerbated by pay differentials. The amount in scholarships and benefits MSU athletes receive pales in comparison to the $4 million-plus that Izzo bring in. If players were fairly compensated and had greater flexibility to leave their “jobs,” Tom Izzo would never go after them as he does. The yelling comes with the power. Players’ allegiance to the coach does as well.
When it comes to team sports, loyalty is too often confused with coercion. Just like other kinds of abusive relationships, the victims often proclaim their love and loyalty. But abuse of power is not synonymous with victory — or at least, it shouldn’t be.
This story about abuse in sports was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.