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November 1, 2013

Coaches grapple with line between discipline and abuse

The outrage was visceral last spring when ESPN aired the damning video showing Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice shoving his players, hurling gay slurs and throwing basketballs at their heads. He was fired as a result, along with Rutgers's athletic director, faulted for not responding more forcefully when first presented with the footage.

By all accounts, Rice was an outlier - "an animal," in the words of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - and his coaching tactics were widely condemned as having no place in college sports.

But rare is the college coach who has never lost his composure or raised his voice to drive home a point. And as the 2013-14 college basketball season prepares to tip off, coaches, conferences and college administrators alike are grappling with the boundaries of the often-harsh language of the job.

On this topic - what exactly crosses the line in reprimanding, disciplining or dishing out what's known as "tough love" to players - the terrain is rapidly shifting. And when extreme measures are captured on video or audio, what's the likely fallout from fans, as well as bosses, who clamor for victories yet cringe over the methods?

The consequences of getting it wrong can be profound.

A profane rant can be cause for a formal complaint to an athletic director or fodder for the evening news, as it was last month at Georgetown, where women's basketball coach Keith Brown was forced to resign following complaints by some of his players of unprofessional conduct and inappropriate language.

Peppered with demeaning personal slurs, a pattern of verbal abuse can also be cause for firing - even grounds for a lawsuit. A former Holy Cross women's basketball player recently sued Coach Bill Gibbons and the school, claiming he was physically and emotionally abusive and that the school covered up the behavior.

They are but two examples of a significant, emerging trend of holding abusive coaches accountable, according to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, lawyer and director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit.

While federal law covers issues such as sexual abuse, Hogshead-Makar stresses what's new here is protecting athletes from emotional abuse or bullying, which is a matter of morality. At the moment, the definition of emotionally abusive coaching is as murky as college basketball's new rule about hand-checking on defense, if not moreso.

Said John Thompson III, who is entering his 10th season as men's basketball coach at Georgetown: "At what point when I'm correcting a player does he decide, 'I'm being harassed. I'm being bullied,' or that he's in a threatening environment? If I tell him five times in a row, 'Hey kid, you're not rebounding! Hey kid, you're not rebounding! Hey key, you're not rebounding!' is he being bullied? By some definitions, possibly."

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