There aren’t many instances when “soft” is viewed positively in the world of sports.
A soft touch on jump shots and fade routes is good. So are soft hands for catching hard passes and wicked grounders. There might be a few more examples but they escape me at the moment.
Overall though, soft often is used as insult. And in the minds of some observers, it applies to an entire generation of athletes.
Today’s players don’t care much for the old standards of treatment modeled by the likes of Bear Bryant, Bob Knight, Frank Kush and scores of less-famous coaches. Concepts such as abuse and mistreatment didn’t apply in a world and time before Twitter, Facebook and ESPN.
Back then, coach was king – doling out tough love and tough tactics designed to strengthen young people … if not break them first.
In that world, sensitivity is a dirty word and hurt feelings are maladies to be treated and cured. Anyone who can’t get with the program is deemed a wimp or worse. Proponents of this approach believe that dissent is based on political correctness and “sissyfication” that are ruining our country.
That’s the camp behind guys like Mike Lonergan. George Washington University fired him as men’s basketball coach last week, despite three consecutive 22-plus-win seasons, after looking into complaints from multiple players.
“The university recently conducted a thorough investigation into allegations concerning Coach Lonergan,” Provost Forrest Maltzman said Saturday in a statement. “The university concluded that Coach Lonergan had engaged in conduct inconsistent with the university’s values.
“A broader review of the Department of Athletics and Recreation is currently underway and will be completed in the near future. We recognize and embrace our responsibility to provide a supportive and respectful environment for all members of our community.”
Lonergan’s style was called into question in July, following a Washington Post report that players accused him of verbal and emotional abuse, including denigrating the players and making repeated graphic and offensive remarks about athletic director Patrick Nero. A number of former players and staff members said the program’s environment was toxic, contributing to 13 transfers during Lonergan’s five seasons, including three at the conclusion of each season the past four years.
When the story was published, Lonergan emailed a statement to the newspaper: “I will not respond to anonymous, unfounded allegations,” he said. “These types of accusations have already been investigated by the University and found to be groundless. Those who know me know that I conduct myself and run my program with integrity.”
The problem could be that some folks, maybe Lonergan included, don’t consider personal insults, graphic suggestions and mean-spirited critiques to be character flaws. That’s just an approach employed by many successful coaches over the years.
And there’s no denying that Lonergan’s methodology netted results on the court. GW won the National Invitation Tournament last season. The Colonials received a bid to the NCAA tournament in 2014, earning Lonergan a contract extension through 2021.
Before winning at GW, Lonergan enjoyed success at Division III Catholic University – where he was 251-88 overall with a national championship in 2001 – and at Vermont – where he posted 20-win seasons in four of his six years there. So there’s never been any question about his coaching acumen.
His coaching demeanor has been another issue, which apparently didn’t escape his attention. The Washington Post article included a 2007 self-assessment he wrote at Vermont: “I won’t always get the best responses on the student-athlete questionnaires, but I promise you our guys are treated with great respect.”
Anonymous players at GW thought otherwise, including one who wrote to the school’s Title IX coordinator with complaints of Lonergan’s “verbal and emotional abuse, as well as player mistreatment.”
We’ve come a long way from Bryant’s 1954 Texas A&M “Junction Boys” and disciples of the legendary coach whose brutality bordered on torture. Again, depending on your perspective, that’s what’s missing from sports today. The deprivation and degradation of tyrannical coaches were effective male-bonding techniques used to remove weakness and strengthen character.
I have a different view, comparing those coaches to out-of-control parents who wield authority over their children like a whip – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The children have little choice but to suffer in acceptance, convincing themselves that love can be coarse and crude, rough and rude.
Times have changed, for the better, with the proliferation of video and social media giving athletes courage to speak up and evidence to back them up.
We’ve seen Knight choke Neil Reed and we’ve seen former Rutgers coach Mike Rice throw balls at and kick his players. We’ve seen the Illinois football player’s tweet that prompted a number of players to come forward, leading to Tim Beckman’s dismissal. We’ve seen at least seven women’s basketball coaches over the last three years be investigated, suspended or fired for alleged mistreatment.
“I believe this is a cultural problem,” Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, told Sports Illustrated last year. The organization often hears from abused athletes. “A lot of coaches, they were hollered at and abused when they were players,” Huma said.
A lot of things that happened in the past should come to end. Abusive coaching is one of them. The tactics have no place in today’s society.
That’s not a symptom of political correctness.
It’s a sign of progress.