Like many who watched the Penn State-Wisconsin football game a few weeks ago, I couldn’t avoid thinking about last year’s horrifying revelations of former Nittany Lions Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against children. From the infamous 23-page grand jury indictment to the cringe-worthy phone interview with Sandusky on NBC’s “Rock Center”—I will never forget a sullen Bob Costas speaking of “rhythmic slap, slap, slapping sounds”—the news story was unlike anything I’d ever come across before. The lurid accusations, the high-profile figures, the institutional failure—it all seemed so surreal.
While the aftermath resulted in a much-deserved outpouring of support for the victims and the dismissal of several morally-bankrupt administrators, I felt one matter was left inadequately addressed: the intensified scrutiny to be faced by all coaches across all levels of sports going forward.
The Sandusky story has undoubtedly caused more parents to refrain from just blindly handing their child off to a coach with the assumption that “they’re in good hands,” which is certainly a good thing. It’s important for parents to make certain that organizations do background checks on coaches and alert their children to what types of behaviors are inappropriate for a coach.
Still, I can’t help but feel a bit conflicted about the future relationships between coaches and athletes as a result of the Sandusky fallout. I had the privilege of having some excellent coaches in a number of sports during my youth, many of whom I still view as role models to this day. In many cases, I don’t think my positive experience with sports would be possible without those coaches.
Playing middle school basketball under the same coach from sixth through eighth grade was perhaps the most enjoyable time in my life. Though our team was merely good rather than great, there was rarely a day where any of us didn’t look forward to practicing or playing a game. One of the reasons was Coach B, whose wry sense of humor kept our team loose.
Coach B delivered some of the funniest one-liners I’ve ever heard. There was the time my teammate James somewhat facetiously said, “Hey Coach B, you’re my idol.” Coach B just deadpanned, “Thanks, I’ve got my bong in my truck.” We were in seventh grade at the time.
Another time, in the locker room during pregame, Coach B asked us to go around and say what each of us planned to accomplish that night. Dylan, our portly backup forward, boldly said he planned to reach double-digits in three statistical categories, a “triple-double.” Rather incredulously, our coach responded, “What’s that mean, you’re going to get 10 cheeseburgers, 10 hot dogs and 10 soft pretzels?” The entire locker room, Dylan included, erupted in laughter.
I feel that the type of player-coach relationship Coach B had with us—that of a foul-mouthed buddy—will become increasingly scarce as administrators and program directors look for more professional, straight-laced men and women to lead their teams. The more a coach jokes around with his or her team, the theory goes, the more he or she becomes a friend to the players, and the closer the coach toes the line of being a friend, the greater the chance he or she is a predator, given the easy access to young people.
I don’t necessarily fault exercising more caution with coaches, but I question whether a more sophisticated, businesslike relationship between players and coaches can be effective. From a personal standpoint, I would argue that playing for somebody like Coach B, who was as unrefined as they come, was the most fun I ever had playing sports. I don’t know if I would’ve played basketball as long as I did had I been coached by a guy who only made himself available to talk basketball and nothing more.
It’s because of the spirit of Coach B and the other coaches I’ve met along the way that I dragged my ass out of bed to play pickup basketball at my old middle school at 7 a.m. this past Thanksgiving. Both my JV and freshman basketball coaches were in attendance, as was my old teammate Dylan. We divided the team among old guys and young guys, with my old coaches opposing Dylan and me. Throughout the morning, we all had no problem engaging each other in some good-natured shit-talking.
After all, it was a game among friends.
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