Basketball is a sport of full of passion and raw emotion. I should know, I’ve been around it all my life. I grew up a stone’s throw off Tobacco Road in North Carolina. In college, I spent time as a student manager at a NCAA Division I school. And now I have the privilege of coaching high school basketball in Texas.
This passion and emotion is a key factor in what makes the sport so great. Don’t believe me? Turn on your TV any weekend in March. There you’ll see more than your fair share of buzzer beaters, upsets, Cinderella slippers and feel-good stories that could fill a dozen future Disney films.
But unfortunately, we were all reminded this week that the same passion and emotion can have just the same negative impact on a coach, team and school.
On Tuesday, ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” introduced us all to video footage of then Rutgers men’s basketball head coach Mike Rice firing everything at his players from basketballs to obscenities and anti-gay slurs.
I saw these offenses myself for the first time courtesy of a video clip on a friend’s Facebook wall. Immediately, my mind began doing its best to define the images I was seeing. Inexcusable. Undefendable. Horrifying. Head-scratching.
Then I discovered the kicker. These images weren’t filmed at Rutgers practices that took place this month, or even this year.
When I found out these tapes were first made available to the Rutgers athletic department in November of last year, I couldn’t believe that Rice had been allowed to keep his job.
I was floored. How could an institution of higher education deem these actions as OK? Especially a school with a self-proclaimed “rich history of more then 240 years.”
The fact that Coach Rice (or any Rutgers employee for that matter) would be allowed to keep their job after actions like those astounds me. How could anyone in position of leading young people be allowed to continue to do so after such behavior?
Not only do his actions violate the trust a coach should have with his players, but it also falls well short of the basic ideal of human decency.
To be perfectly clear, I don’t know Coach Rice. I’ve never met him. The high school gym I coach in is 1,742 miles away from the campus of Rutgers in Newark, N.J.
But what I do know is that both he and I are given the same opportunities as coaches. It’s an opportunity that he and I share with tens of thousands of coaches across the country -- all the way from junior high through high school and college.
It’s an opportunity to play various roles in the lives of our athletes. As coaches we are called to be teachers, counselors, skill developers, motivators, disciplinarians and so much more.
We are given the opportunity to lead our players in such a way that when they leave our program, they are better men (or women) than when we first met them. We are given the task of preparing them to have a great and lasting impact on the world around them.
As Coach John Wooden once put it, we as coaches are tasked with helping players understand that "what you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player."
And while Coach Rice’s poor judgment may lead to trust issues among the general public towards those in my profession, I am very proud to say that I know his actions are the exception, and not the rule, for those of us in the coaching fraternity.
What happened within the men’s basketball program at Rutgers is unacceptable. Even Coach Rice himself has admitted it. And I don’t think anyone would disagree.
But understand this -- the world of high school and college athletics is full of coaches who are not only winning games on the court, but they’re building winners in everyday life with the players they coach. I’ve been around them. I’ve seen them do it.
Let’s focus less on the lives of coaches like Mike Rice and more on the ones of those like John Wooden. That’s what the game of basketball is truly about.
Matt McLeod is the boy’s basketball coach at Faith Family Church in Fort Worth, Texas.