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Rewarding Adults Who Bully

coach athlete

If a coach is successful and wins championships, does it excuse bullying conduct?

The best way to answer this question is to ask it first about kids: if reports come in from multiple sources that a child is bullying and hurting others, should a school principal factor in whether or not the child won a spelling bee or hit a home run? Granted, it might make the principal’s decision more difficult, especially if the child is at a private school that depends on its reputation and achievements to encourage attendees. The principal might feel conflicted and not want to suspend or discipline his star academic or athlete, but most would agree: bullying conduct does not get erased by the child’s successes. Furthermore, it would be difficult for the principal to argue that because the child won the spelling bee or hit the home run, it meant he was not a bully. That kind of logic is faulty.

If this is the way we handle bullying done by children, why do we change the rules when we are dealing with adults? Surely, we hold adults to a higher code of conduct than children. Yes, It could be a personal liability and a risk for an organization responsible for the staff conduct, but what if the ORG is a limited liability corporation? You could find the answer on moneybrighter but in general, when it comes to bullying, we should hold adults to a much higher code of conduct than children since child bullies do not have control over their target’s physical or psychological health or future like adults do who may be in the powerful position of teacher or coach. We can’t really even compare the severity of child bullying to adult bullying.

Nonetheless, just like the principal might feel conflicted about disciplining the star student, when it comes to adult bullies, the decision may be even more difficult for administrators. Steve Eder in an April 2013 article in the New York Times notes that Rutgers officials knew about basketball coach Mike Rice’s abusive conduct, but did not fire him. Think of the inner turmoil when Rutgers Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, heard a report from a student-athlete who felt bullied by Mike Rice. We can well imagine the thought process. This coach is so talented; he’s pulling in a multi-million dollar salary because he’s so skilled. Worse, the university’s reputation could be tainted if the Athletic Director suspends or fires him. But, the bottom line is: this coach is hurting his players.

A coach has significant control over his or her player’s physical and psychological health and their future. The coach is empowered by the right to say who plays, who gets scholarships, who gets positions. He also has the power to tell an athlete to play even though they are sick or injured. By means of his position, his words and gestures carry far more weight than any of those said by a peer. In a March 2009 article for Sport and Society, professors Ashley Stirling and Gretchen Kerr’ research shows that some athletes imagine the coach’s position, even when abusive, as comparable to a priest or a cult leader. Some athletes even imagine that their abusive coach is omniscient.

Considering how powerful these coaches are, it must take great mental toughness and courage for athletes, especially if they are teenagers, to come forward and report on coach bullying. There was only one upperclassman on Mike Rice’s university team who was able to do it. There are enormous risks to breaking the silence: athletes know that speaking up could cost them position, playing time, scholarships, and a much needed letter of reference if they want to play at the next level. It puts the sport they love, and a future playing it, on the line. There are also major obstacles in the inner psychological world. When an athlete has been exposed to messaging from a bully---from even a child bully let alone a coach---especially for an extended period of time, they come to believe the harmful words. Many of us have heard or read about the demeaning litany of terms coaches who bully use: waste of a player, pussy, soft, embarrassment, pathetic, retard, all reinforced by yelling and swearing. No wonder so few speak up about being bullied.

On teams where abuse occurs, the majority of student-athletes come to believe they deserve to be humiliated and berated. They actually reach a point where they are brainwashed into thinking it’s for their own good. But there are also the few athletes who hit a breaking point and they do speak up. As discussed in an article by Bob Hohler in The Boston Globe in April 2014, for some players, like those on basketball coach Kelly Greenberg’s team, they have to be suicidal before they quit the sport they love and give up their scholarships. Only then do they speak up. That gives us an idea just how hard it is to report coaches who bully.

Basketball coaches Shann Hart, Kelly Greenberg, Doug Wojcik, Mike Rice and others were fired for bullying their student-athletes in the US. Likewise, in British Columbia a legendary rowing coach, Mike Spracklen, did not have his contract renewed by Rowing Canada after adult athletes reported on his bullying conduct. In an August 2012 article by Teddy Katz for CBC Sports, some of the athletes described Spracklen’s culture of favoritism, humiliation and fear. Comparable to high-level coaches like those fired in the US, it must have been a difficult decision for Rowing Canada to not renew Spracklen’s contract because he was so talented and had secured so many Olympic medals with his rowers. He had staunch supporters.

What is surprising is that it has recently been announced that Coach Spracklen is going to be inducted into the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. He is being celebrated not only as a winner of multiple Olympic medals with his athletes, but according to staff writers of a June 2015 article in Victoria News, he is also being celebrated as a “true role model.”

No one can argue that any of these coaches whose contracts are not renewed aren’t highly skilled and don’t know the sport inside out, but how do we explain to our children that a coach like Mike Spracklen is being given an award for being a role model? Athletes coached by Spracklen walked away from their Olympic dream rather than be exposed any further to his “verbal abuse” and favoritism (1).  Brian Richardson was Rowing Canada’s head coach at the 1996 Olympics where the team won six medals and he coached alongside Spracklen during the 2004 games in Athens. Richardson praises Spracklen but also offers a caution:

“As a coach he is second to none if you want to win the gold medal ... [in the men’s eight] there is probably no one better in the world to do that for you,” Richardson says. But he adds: “You have to be aware there will be a lot of destruction and fallout because of it.” He says Spracklen’s tactics have had the Canadian team close to self-destructing over the years." (2)

When we induct a coach like this into a Sports Hall of Fame as a “true role model”, we give our children mixed messages. We say to children out one side of our mouths: bullying is not tolerated; it’s extremely harmful, don’t be a bystander. We say out the other side of our mouths: bullying gets results; it makes teams win; it gets you medals and honors. Essentially what we are saying to children is: if you hurt people but win, it’s okay. In fact, people will look the other way. In fact, your winning status may well erase the harm you’ve done.

Again in British Columbia, it is equally interesting to look at the awards and honors given to a high-school teacher and basketball coach, who according to investigative journalist Robert Cribb’s March 2015 article, “Teachers’ bullying scarred us say Student Athletes,” in the Toronto Star had multiple athletes report that he was bullying them (3). The eight students that gave testimonies ranged from first year university to grade 10 and all told the same story of incoherent yelling, conveying disgust and contempt, swearing, personal attacks, humiliating and demeaning conduct. Like the university and Olympic athletes who reported on coach bullying, the teenagers described playing their sport within a culture of fear, humiliation, and favoritism. However, there was one notable difference. When these teenagers reported on the coach’s bullying, the school could not point to his winning status to justify keeping him in position. For over twenty years, the coach had failed to win even a third or fourth tier championship in basketball. In fact, the only time he ever won a top Division Provincial Championship was when he had a player on the team who went on to be a superstar in the NBA. Nonetheless, after students reported on his abusive conduct, the sports community began giving him awards. It almost seemed as if the adults were honoring this coach because he had been exposed as a bully.

How do we explain this to our children?

No player nominated this teacher for a local newspaper’s coaching award. Instead, the assistant coach made the nomination. The Headmaster, who had personally read testimonies and interviewed students about the bullying, did not put a stop to it when someone offered a cash incentive on the school website for people to cast their vote in order to bump up numbers for the coach so that he could get the award. Surprisingly, the contest appears to run on number of votes, as opposed to player testimonies, so that anyone’s vote counts. It wasn’t necessary to have been coached by this high-school teacher. And he won (4).

Although promised confidentiality, the student-athletes who reported on the coach’s bullying, had already been exposed by the Headmaster to the coach himself. Then word appeared to get out so that these student-athletes were bullied and cyber-bullied by peers as if their request to play in a healthy and safe environment was wrong or shameful. When the coach received the award, it was used against the athletes who spoke up to discredit them as if to say: he won this award so he can’t be a bully. Just like with children, this is faulty logic.

On the day this coach was discussed in Robert Cribb’s Toronto Star article as a bully according to multiple student testimonies, the BC Boys Basketball Association gave him another award. On that same night he won, for the first time in over twenty years, a C Division Provincial Championship title (5).  As the award was being handed to him, a reporter asked if the Basketball Association thought calling players obscenities was acceptable, the representative said “no” it was not okay, while at the same time he handed the award to the coach who used obscenities (6).  A sport psychology expert weighed in to say giving an award to this coach “further traumatizes” athletes who spoke up about his bullying (7).  The messaging for child and adult alike is clear: if you refuse to be a bystander, if you speak up about bullying, you will become more of a target. You will be exposed and further humiliated, while the bully will be honored and given awards. You will be further traumatized.

Bullying has reached epidemic proportions and, according to at least forty years of psychological, psychiatric, sport, and neuroscientific research, is directly correlated with addiction, low self-esteem, depression, failure to reach potential, self-harm, athletes quitting sports, eating disorders, chronic illness and suicide. Regardless, at least in some places, bullying appears to be celebrated if the bully is a coach. Bullying is learned behavior; it is taught to children by adult role models and in these cases appears to be sanctioned in our society. We actually reward it. 

That is why we should not act as if the recent suicide by sixteen year old, Kennedy LeRoy, who was bullied is shocking (8).  It’s to be expected. In Canada, we know what bullying did to Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, and Ashkan Sultani who all committed suicide and were all widely discussed in national news (9).  We know that bullying harms and that’s why athletes---at Olympic, university, and high-school levels---seek the courage required to speak up and ask for protection. When we give awards to those who bully, it sends out a message that is hypocritical at best and traumatizing at worst.

Kennedy LeRoy stated in his suicide note that words hurt more than physical blows. This teenager that took his life is speaking about words said by children. We can’t even begin to fathom how much words hurt when they are said by adults in powerful positions. We know the soul-destroying impact of bullying and we know that suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescent populations.  If we keep honoring bullies, this may well be the reward we can expect to reap.



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4 - Rod Mickleburgh, “Before Amanda Todd, the Sultani family suffered silently,” The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2012 

Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!