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Why many athletes don't speak out when a coach is abusive

 

In April, the country was transfixed by video images of a head basketball coach, at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, repeatedly berating and shoving his players in a manner reminiscent of former Hoosiers basketball coach Bobby Knight. They saw one small coach in a sea of giant young men fearlessly flying around the court in a rage, presumably in an attempt to motivate them to play better basketball.

It came as no surprise that as soon as the video was made public, the Rutgers coach was fired, and days later the university’s Athletic Director followed suit, resigning in disgrace after admitting he had been made aware of the coach’s abuse.

Rutger's University parents face-palmed themselves in shock -- “how could we not know that this was happening?” and “why wasn’t something done when it was made known?”

Well, I can tell them the how and the why.

It probably would puzzle most people as to why athletes don’t speak out when they are being verbally or physically humiliated by their coaches. 

I was a teenager, away from home, being subjected to daily emotional torment by a grown man in authority over me.

As an athlete you try to keep your head down and work hard. And, despite the fact that most of us are used to working through some form of physical pain associated with our sport, we didn’t sign up to be abused, let alone are we taught how to handle it on any level by a superior.

I was a collegiate softball player at the number one ranked school in the NAIA, and no one would argue that the university’s head coach was an amazing softball technician.   

He recruited me right out of high school and at the age of 18, I joined the ranks of the elite. I felt humbled, honored and very grateful for the generous scholarship I was awarded.  

When it came to my sport I was obedient to a fault: "Yes, coach...no, coach...whatever you say, coach."  

Unfortunately, that fealty led me down a path filled with repeated injury and multiple surgeries.

The psychological and physical recovery of an injured athlete is dependent on many factors, not the least being the attitude of the coach.  

In my case, the loss of a highly recruited and well-compensated pitcher exposed a very ugly side of collegiate athletics that has now, thanks to the Rutgers story, become front and center.

Sitting on the bench at practice I was subject to daily verbal diatribes in front of my teammates.  I was a “waste to the program” and told by the coach that he “owned me" and the girls I played with. That we couldn’t complain because he would yank our scholarship funds.  

He told the players to not speak with me in the hopes I would quit so he could take my scholarship money and give it to a “healthy pitcher.”  

I was a teenager, away from home, being subjected to daily emotional torment by a grown man in authority over me.

To the credit of my teammates they qualified for Nationals and we all flew back to the Midwest.  

Upon returning without the title the following week, Coach told me I should have been “begging to go so I could wash his dirty underwear.” In fact, I was inevitably blamed for the loss of their rankings that year because I wasn’t on the mound -- something about “not being mentally tough enough to handle an injury.”

I spent an excruciating two years playing softball in a program that was filled with similar stories. Complaining to the Athletic Director was for naught because this was a winning coach who was bringing top notch talent to the school. In other words, shut up or quit.

Finally, when things reached their nexus, I opened up to my parents. They quickly stepped in and encouraged me to leave the team, telling me that no amount of scholarship money was worth the kind of maltreatment that was being heaped on me. 

In a moment I will always remember, my father told me that no boyfriend, no husband, no employer, and certainly  no coach could speak to me that way. It was a life lesson, for sure.

I went on to win a walk-on spot on the girl’s basketball team my junior year which led to another scholarship and a starting position as a senior. 

My confidence was restored through the encouragement and support of my basketball coach but to this day, as I coach my own softball girls, I am often reminded how of how impact the relationship between a coach and player can carry.

My experiences, and that of the Rutgers University players, should serve as a cautionary tale to all parents, athletes and coaches that speaking up against abuse shouldn’t be sacrificed at the alter of the mighty scholarship dollar.

Lisa Herbertson is a former college athlete.