When I was a high school freshman, my basketball coach shoved me, pushed me, mocked me, and chucked basketballs at me. He compared me in unfavorable ways (and remarkably foul language) to girls and senior citizens. At halftime of our game against Bishop Ireton—after a half when I had scored a season-high 8 points—he walloped me in the head with a water bottle, as punishment for some stupid mistake. And, though I can’t remember a specific moment, he undoubtedly called me a faggot, since just about everyone at an all-boys private school in 1985 called everyone else faggot, and since he was always calling us one name or another.
I’ve been thinking about my coach a lot this week during the satisfying jubilee over former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice. Rice, having shoved and kicked his players, hurled basketballs at them, derided them, and called them faggots and fairies, has been exiled to moral Siberia, universally pilloried by America. Even Fox News could barely rise to defend him, with Sean Hannity mustering only a muted tribute to “old-fashioned discipline.”
So is there something wrong with me given that I feel truly sorry for Rice? I didn’t like my abusive coach, but I kind of loved him. None of the abuse ever bothered me. Not the shoving. Not the water bottle. Not the insults. I called my parents today to find out if I had ever even mentioned Coach’s harsh interrogation methods. They said I had never said a word. That’s because it didn’t register as bullying or abuse, just as coaching. (I went to high school during the heyday of Indiana coach Bobby Knight, and I never understood why everyone was so outraged when he hurled a chair or screamed at his players. I assumed that was what all coaches did.)
Mostly, I appreciated Coach’s harshness. I was a mediocre athlete who had never trained hard or played hard. He was the first coach who pushed me, the first who demanded I really work, and the first who punished me when I didn’t. I wasn’t a very good basketball player, but I got a lot better playing for him. Schoolwork came easily to me, but basketball didn’t: Coach’s gym was the first place I ever consistently failed, and also one of the only places I ever felt the satisfaction of mastering a skill that I earned. Coach taught me to push myself when I was past exhaustion. In the first half of the season, our team blew game after game after holding a lead. He never let us forget that we hadn’t played tough when it mattered, that we had folded under pressure—lessons that I carry with me today. We finally made a second-half comeback of our own, defeating our bitterest rival, Sidwell Friends, in the final game of the season. Sinking the free throw that clinched that victory was the sweetest moment of my athletic life. I’m not surprised that practically the only people who have defended Rice are his own players—the men who are in a better position than anyone else to know whether his tactics helped them.
I cherish—even now, as a grown man—the memories of that basketball season. Keep in mind this was a freshman team, playing in a crummy private school league, and losing almost all our games, and I wasn’t even a starter. Yet I still replay the moments: I can feel the ball on my palm as I hoisted that Sidwell free throw; I wince at the game where I missed every single shot I took, including all six free throws, as we got crushed by Georgetown Prep. Even episodes from practice—when I boxed out a teammate so hard that I knocked him to the floor—still stick with me after 28 years. Why? Because when I boxed that guy out, Coach shouted at me. “You knocked him on his ass, Plotz. That’s how you box someone out.”
The abuse was married to the praise. We needed both. Maybe it’s sad to say this, but we wouldn’t have trusted the kind words without the cruelty. I asked my parents if they would have reported Coach to the school had they known what he was doing. My mother said instantly that she would have. My father hesitated, and said he wasn’t sure. “You thought you were learning from it. And maybe you were.”
It is certainly true that Coach was cruel because our school was a little bit cruel. Half the teachers were bullies. I’m ashamed of the terrible things I said to classmates, and still smart at the terrible things they said to me. The school was brutal and sneering in a way that it isn’t now—and that wouldn’t be tolerated now.
The problem, of course, is that tough love doesn’t work for everyone. As Emily Bazelon wrote in her piece about Rice last week, in a 2011 study “researchers concluded that athletes who were highly self-motivated, or had anxiety about pain, preferred coaches who led democratically. But the athletes with less self-motivation wanted ‘autocratic’ coaches ‘who provided high amounts of punishment-oriented feedback.’ ”
This weekend I contacted some of my old classmates to see what they remembered about our coaches. Almost all of us—different sports, different coaches—remember being abused. Some recall it as I do—not a problem, and probably a spur to improve. But some don’t. For them it was pointless authoritarian savagery that made them dread sports.
My oldest child is almost the age I was when Coach smacked me in the locker room. We live in a sweeter time. We are more leery of the arbitrary authority of coaches, intolerant of physical discipline and bullying. This gentling spares many vulnerable kids years of suffering. And I have happily softened along with everyone else. If my kids endured what I did, I would be in the principal’s office demanding heads. Yet I’m a hypocrite, because I’m certain that the abuse I would abhor today made me a better basketball player and a better teammate, and possibly even made me a better person.