Almost as soon as the disturbing video of now fired Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice abusing players surfaced Tuesday, social media exploded with horror and one resounding question:
Why didn't anyone fight back?
It's hard not to wonder exactly that as athletes glumly accept being pushed, shoved, grabbed, and targeted with hurled basketballs. How did Rice go years without retribution of any sort?
To this point, current Rutgers players have remained silent, and interview requests were denied by the university.
But for some of those who have been through similar circumstances at another university, there is a one-word answer: fear.
where former swimming coach Greg Winslow has been accused by swimmers of verbal, emotional and physical abuse over a five-year period beginning in late 2007. One swimmer, Karson Applin, says he was instructed to swim underwater with a PVC pipe taped to his back and arms until he blacked out. Another swimmer, Lauren Hewson, says she had to swim with a mesh bag over her head and eventually needed counseling. Other swimmers tell stories of Winslow throwing chairs in the water and screaming at athletes. One swimmer, who needed EMT help after passing out during a drill, told Yahoo! Sports the coach told him he'd better not stop a drill unless he needed to go back to the hospital.The Rutgers scandal has parallels to the situation at the University of Utah,
The university has since ordered an investigation into the alleged abuse, yet as more and more details come to light, former swimmers have wondered the same thing many across the country are now wondering about Rutgers players and Mike Rice. In the words of former Utah swimmer Sarah Boylen, "Why didn't I punch Greg Winslow in the face?"
Boylen, who says she went outside of the school to seek counseling, described her emotions at Utah as a "state of shock."
"Greg had a personality like a ticking time bomb," says Boylen, 21. "I don't know if he was going to get mad each day. I was always extremely scared to confront Greg. I didn't know which Greg I was going to get. I never knew if I was going to get strapped to a PVC pipe or what."
Boylen never had to swim with a PVC pipe, but she says Winslow would put her in a headlock and challenge her to get out. There were other drills including running barefoot in the snow and a "circle of death" in which swimmers had to wrestle each other. (Another swimmer gave the same account.)
"There was definitely a lot of anxiety before every practice," said one former swimmer, who asked to be kept anonymous. "I thought maybe I'm just nervous because it's a high level, and this is how it is. Then I talked to other people at other schools and what we're doing is so not what we should be doing. There was lot of anxiety. Underwaters [sprints below the water line] were something I had a lot of anxiety about. Hearing about people passing out. Very scary." When asked if she feared for her safety, this swimmer said, "Yes."
Then there were the verbal diatribes. "He would get in my face and scream at me," Boylen says. Another swimmer said Winslow would scream at teammates "at least once a week."
Yet there was always a fear of retaliation if someone blew the whistle on Winslow. Many of the swimmers could simply not afford to be on campus if they didn't keep their scholarships, and Winslow – like all college coaches – was in charge of that. There was an undercurrent of worry, swimmers say, that Winslow would cut their lifeline arbitrarily.
"He was known to kick people off on a whim, out of anger," said one swimmer who says she was temporarily kicked off the team because she skipped an optional practice to do a school project.
Vlas Lezin, who came from Russia to swim with the goal of making the Olympics, says Winslow took away his scholarship after he tried to get the coach's attention on a noisy pool deck by grabbing his shoulder. Lezin appealed to the university but was denied, and he stopped swimming altogether.
Applin says Winslow took his scholarship away without a clear reason after complaints were made about the PVC pipe incident. Applin says Winslow told him, "There's too much up against you," and that was it. Only in March, after Winslow's suspension and a Yahoo! Sports report detailing the abuse that led to the university's investigation, did the school contact Applin and inform him his scholarship had been restored. He says he was "ecstatic" at the news and might return to swim at Utah.
There are other reasons not to fight back. Transferring costs a student a year of competing, which can derail professional or Olympic hopes. And there are often teammates who have no concerns with a coach's behavior. ESPN's report on the Rutgers situation found basketball players who were unfazed by Rice's actions. Similarly, one former Utah swimmer ardently defended Winslow.
"I was not troubled at all," former Utah swimmer Todd Bradley told Yahoo! Sports. "I did not feel unsafe during the three years I swam with Greg. We're D-I athletes. I expected to work really hard and be pushed to my limits. We did some underwater sets where you're not to breath. I managed it just fine. Those that didn't manage it were not meant to swim D-I athletics."
Concerns about rocking the boat also play into players keeping quiet. Former Utah swimmer Austin Fiascone says he had concerns about Winslow for a while but said nothing over the short term because "I didn't want to upset team chemistry." When a coach shows anger, there's concern that retaliation will bring punishment to the entire team in the form of sprints, do-overs, or simply more yelling. And since every NCAA team is limited to only a certain amount of practice time per week, delays for arguments might get everyone angry and impede progress.
"The problem," Boylen says, "is that if the seniors don't question it, and the juniors don't question it, you just kind of go along with it. We don't know if it's OK."
The path of least resistance for Boylen was "survival mode." She tried to keep her head down and finish practice without incident. She took pride in being tough and putting up with whatever Winslow did. In time, however, it became too much. Boylen went to counseling without telling her coach and eventually broke down in the compliance office in 2011. Boylen transferred to Purdue and competed in the 2012 Olympic trials in Omaha.
"When you're in the situation, you think, 'That's just the way college sports are,' " Boylen explains. "But no, it's not. It makes me sick. [Swimmers] couldn't leave. They couldn't afford to leave. They had to choose between being abused and losing thousands of dollars."
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