Tough Love? Tough Luck


Whatever happened to spare the rod and spoil the child?p. Fifty years ago, coaches were drill instructors modeled after John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker (Stryker? get it?), the relentless tough Marine training a squad of naive rebellious recruits in “Sands of Iwo Jima.” Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, Ara Parseghian—they were typhoons of intimidation, preparing men for greatness by subjecting them to ordeal.p. Today, the height of coaching Zen is Phil Jackson of the Los Angeles Lakers, preparing Shaquille O’Neal for battle by having him read Friedrich Nietzsche.p. The firing of Bob Knight as Indiana University basketball coach of course causes us to ask: What happened? What does this sea change say about our culture, our values, about sports itself? Have our gladiators and their coaches abandoned their devotion to aggression, terror, browbeating and all the other tools of motivation that made America great?p. Well, for one thing, according to Larry Hawkins, president of the Institute for Athletics and Education at the University of Chicago, who has coached high school sports in Chicago “for a hundred years,” there has been a transformation in the athletes themselves.p. “I used to holler and yell at them. But the most leveling experience for me was when I first coached girl sports. It cleared that all up. How much can you holler at a young lady before she goes off into the bathroom and won’t come out?”p. Now Knight is gone for behavior that Myles Brand, the university’s president, termed “uncivil, defiant and unacceptable.” But it wasn’t just Knight’s acting out that was remarkable. The measure of how American society has changed over the last three generations is that it is now possible to fire a Hoosier hoops coach with a 763-290 lifetime record who for decades got away with chair-throwing, player-choking, and beating up a cop in Puerto Rico. “Bobby Knight is an enigma; I see him almost like a very strong father figure in an earlier day,” said Brenda Bredemeier, co-director of the Center for Sport, Character and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. “He cares deeply about his players and the university, but he has this need for catharsis. He makes a mess of everything.”p. Indeed, anthropologists and sports sociologists yesterday saw Knight as absolutely the last holdout against America’s inexorable change in its attitudes toward authority figures, parenting and the most efficient means of getting things done.“p. Fear is always a reinforcement mechanism. Whether it produces the outcome you want over the long run is another question,” observed Lionel Tiger, the Rutgers anthropologist whose most famous work is 1969’s “Men in Groups,” and whose most recent book is “The Decline of Males.”“There’s the old saying ‘When the tough get going, the going gets tough.’ People who believe in toughness can exhibit these Draconian attitudes that are not necessary. As a culture, we’ve become more effective—psychologically, educationally, you name it. Tires have always busted up. But now we are no longer willing to tolerate it. Is that soft or effective? I think the answer is effective.”p. What caused all this? Okay, you knew this was coming, right?—it all goes back to the ‘60s.p. “The ’60s were crucial,” Bredemeier observed. “There was truly a disillusionment with the folks in power—Vietnam, the protests, Watergate. This was combined with a process of moral reassessment with the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. It called authority into question on a principled basis—on moral grounds.”p. There was also a huge shift in the way families worked. In the ’50s, the authoritarian father was the norm. He was the stress-providing model that people expected boys to strive to become when they became men.p. But economics changed. Daddy was no longer the only breadwinner. Women entered the work force, and they began to share power as they brought home money. Demographics changed.p. “A low birth rate meant that much more attention was given to each individual child,” Tiger noted. "They were all the more carefully protected by families and the community at large. In Marine training now, you hold up a blue card if you’re tired. If you’d tried something like that in the past, you’d have ended up in the brig."p. Technology changed. “Life was tougher in the past. There were fewer jobs, less prosperity. You had to just suck it up and bear it,” said Tiger. “Now there are machines to do everything.”p. And our expectations for our sports programs changed.p. “Certainly there’s a dramatic change in coaching philosophy from one who was expected to field the team and win without other concerns,” said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.p. Winning is not everything, we decided. Nor is sports just a rite of passage, a ritual of manhood.“Graduation rates were horribly embarrassing,” Lapchick noted. “More athletes were getting into trouble. We saw successful pro athletes who ended up struggling financially. We began to realize the instantaneous moment of fame was not going to sustain them for a lifetime. They were going to need other skills and capabilities.”p. So our sports programs have changed, and the coaches we reward have changed with them. Except, of course, for Bob Knight, who seemed ever more like a fossil. Where once he might have fit a kind of ideal of a strong leader, a fiercely devoted authoritarian, he no longer fits our mold.p. We now use words like “holistic” and, dare we say it, even “spiritual,” to describe the programs we desire.p. “In our culture, we no longer separate the different aspects of our lives,” said Bredemeier. “We seek to be more fully human in every dimension of our being. We are human beings who are spiritually hungering; we are on spiritual quests and journeys. Coaches bring their whole self into their coaching, their spiritual orientations and practices. They want to experience life in a broader and fuller way and want the same for the players.”p. Really? Bredemeier of the University of Notre Dame is asked. Can you imagine Notre Dame’s legendary Ara Parseghian ever having said that? “No.” She giggles. “I can’t.”

Tuesday, September 12, 2000

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