The first documented incident of Mike Rice abusing basketball players at Rutgers happened soon after he was hired, in 2010. That same year, Greg Winslow, the head swimming coach at the University of Utah, taped a PVC pipe to the back of one of his athletes and ordered him to swim underwater, which he did – until he passed out. In both cases, no whistles were blown on the alleged abuse until this year.
Why did it take so long? Simple: student-athletes feel powerless to speak up.
That has to change.
If a college degree is the key to the future, and a scholarship is the only way to pay for that degree, then it's no wonder student-athletes are hesitant to call out the person who holds the power of issuing scholarships – the coach. So when faced with a choice between reporting an abusive coach or turning the other cheek, the decision is clear: shut up and deal.
Sure, a student-athlete can go to the athletic department with concerns, but whose side is the athletic director on? There's a good chance he hired the coach. Maybe they're friends. Maybe they play in the same foursome. One thing the AD does know is that the student-athletes will be gone in four years, if not sooner.
This is why there should be a separation of power. Take the power of scholarship renewal away from the head coach. Take it out of the athletic department altogether. Make it based on academic performance (and staying out of trouble), rather than something determined by a man or woman who is paid to win games.
That's unlikely ever to happen, however. The SEC distributed nearly $300 million to its member schools last year alone – nearly triple the contribution of just a decade ago. Money talks, and in the case of college sports it accentuates an athletic department's importance to a university and why it should maintain as much power (if not more) as it already wields.
Short of giving up power, athletic departments need to adopt a better process for allowing student-athletes to lodge complaints of abuse without fearing repercussions from coaches or administrators. For that, John Infante, who runs the invaluable Bylaw Blog for student-athletes and parents – has a plan.
Step one is simple: Formalize the disciplinary process for athletes.
"Coaches need to get comfortable with documenting their discipline of athletes better," Infante explains. "Writing down 'I made Johnny run laps because he was late to practice' would go a long way."
In the Utah swimming situation, where Karson Applin was forced to swim underwater with a PVC pipe tied to his back (which ultimately led to him blacking out in the pool), there was no concrete reason given for why Applin was being disciplined. If former coach Greg Winslow had to file his punishment with the athletic department, he may have hesitated before resorting to such a measure.
Before each season, a clear set of team rules can be filed with student affairs as well as the compliance department. This would preclude a too-friendly compliance officer from siding with the coach and ignoring a claim completely. A coach can't make up a rule as he goes along because he's already filed the team rules for the year in two different places.
Then, if there is an allegation of abuse, a student-athlete can file his or her complaint not only to the athletic department, but also to the student affairs department and even university counsel. There's a check on the head coach and, more importantly, awareness by the head coach that he is being checked.
"Involving university administration, student affairs professionals, and ultimately legal counsel protects the integrity of the process," Infante says, "because these groups [especially the lawyers] are most likely to prevent retaliation against athletes."
A system such as this actually helps the head coach as well, because there's a paper trail. The coach can point to his record of discipline as evidence that he doled out punishment for a reason. So if a coach gets a bigger job at another school, he will be protected against student-athletes dredging up old grievances.
Not all perceived abuse rises to the level of investigation. Players (and their parents) have complained about slights in regards to playing time since forever. No need to involve student affairs there.
But if something as serious as physical or verbal abuse is alleged, someone outside of the athletic department needs to be involved. Ideally, the result of a reporting system like this will be fewer transfers for student-athletes and fewer embarrassing situations for a university and its athletic department.
Something should be done. It's too kind to say the system of reporting alleged abuse is faulty when it's actually bordering on non-existent.
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