There is a line football coaches can’t cross. As worshiped and well-paid as they are, there is one boundary to their seemingly limitless power: They cannot commit physical harm or humiliation.
On Saturday, hours before Washington State took the field against UCLA, star receiver Marquess Wilson released a blistering letter addressed to "Cougar Nation" accusing the WSU coaching staff of abuse. The letter is eloquent and emotional, declaring his decision to leave the team because of the way he feels he and his teammates have been treated by the staff.
“The new regime of coaches,” Wilson writes, “has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us.”
He goes on: “My teammates and I have endured this treatment all season long. It is not ‘tough love.’ It is abuse. This abuse cannot be allowed to continue. I feel it is my duty to stand up and shed light on this situation by sacrificing my dreams, my education and my pride. I resign from this team.”
In his concluding paragraph, Wilson adds to the charge: “I hope our departure will bring awareness to the physical, emotional and verbal abuse being allowed in the locker room and on the field.”
This is a very serious charge considering current Washington State head coach Mike Leach was dismissed from Texas Tech after being accused of forcing a player into a storage closet. It's absolutely crucial to note that this is only one player's allegation, and as of right now there's no evidence. Leach responded to a text message early Sunday by saying "I only comment on players that are here. We wish him the best." (Washington State athletic director Bill Moos did release a statement concerning the matter.) It should also be noted that Wilson’s decision to leave comes days after he was suspended for walking out on a practice. This adds important context to a very important situation. After the game, Leach told the press he "absolutely" denies allegations of abuse.
The most crucial component to Wilson’s accusation is the physical abuse. If there is anything to Wilson's allegations, a lot hinges on that aspect of his letter. Woody Hayes yelled at players all the time and it didn’t hurt his career until he struck a Clemson player in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Bobby Knight humiliated student-athletes with regularity but his reputation deteriorated quickly after he choked the late Neil Reed in 1997.
This isn’t to say emotional and verbal forms of abuse are acceptable, but they are certainly harder to define considering screaming can often make players better. Brian Kelly, Nick Saban, and Will Muschamp are only three recent examples of coaches who have had famous shows of anger on the sideline and still turned out winning teams. (Remember when Saban ripped a Miami Dolphins player so mercilessly that he dissolved into tears?) Physical abuse of any kind, however, indicates a coach who has lost control.
We saw a good example of the difference earlier Saturday, when Leach’s replacement at Texas Tech, Tommy Tuberville, slapped a graduate assistant’s headset and cap off after a fourth-down penalty in a double-overtime win against Kansas. Yelling at the G.A. for a screw-up is par for the coaching course. It’s almost cliché. Tuberville, however, raised his left hand and swung it at his subordinate. Asked about the incident after the game, Tuberville offered a weak and thoroughly unconvincing excuse:
"He was on the field, and I reached to grab him and pull him off. When I pulled, I missed his shirt and I grabbed his (headset) and his microphone ripped off his head. I was trying to get him off the field. "He's out on the field, and we're trying to get him off. I missed his shoulder, and grabbed his … It wasn't anything to it.”
But one look at the replay shows Tuberville swung quickly and angrily. That wasn’t a harmless shove or pull of a wire; that was a failure of leadership. Tuberville deserves at least a suspension for the remaining two games of the season. Head coaches are paid a mint to make their players better on and off the field. Running sprints or stadium steps can do that. Physical humiliation of any kind, however, whether by sending a player into a closet or slapping a coach’s headset, is an abdication of responsibility. No excuses, no exceptions.
A lot of people dislike the modern media, and all the attention paid to sports, but here it has a very positive consequence: Coaches get away with less. Tuberville’s story about aiming for an assistant’s shirt falls apart because of video replay. And because Leach is now a national figure, he’ll get national scrutiny. He should be allowed to defend himself, as again this is only a charge right now, but he should also be pushed to give a credible account of whatever happened between his staff and the players. It's possible this is one disaffected player with a grudge, just like Adam James was only one voice at Texas Tech. But if Leach did physically abuse Wilson or anyone on his team, he should be fired. His issues at Texas Tech certainly had a political backdrop, as the player in question was the son of high-powered former ESPN personality Craig James. But two similar incidents is a trend, and that’s an unacceptable trend when young men’s livelihoods are involved.
Leach and Tuberville were hired to win games. But their job goes beyond that. Their job is to teach. It’s to mold student-athletes into adults who don’t beat their wives, don’t get into trouble with the law, and don’t embarrass their schools. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you displays of anger beget more displays of anger. If you’re a multimillionaire coach, you usually get another chance. If you’re a young man with a first job or a first child, one mistake can cost you everything.
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