ESPN? Hello? ESPN? Where are you? CBS Sports, did you miss something in Thursday’s Michigan State/Bradley game in the first round of the NCAA East Region?
With MSU coming to the bench on a TV timeout after just finishing a scoring run, Spartan coach Tom Izzo came 30 feet onto the court to meet freshman Aaron Henry. He gave him a little punch to the stomach and then put a finger in his face and screamed at him with an out-of-control tirade before being restrained by his players and assistant coaches. On the bench, as the players were sitting in their huddle, Izzo continued to direct his diatribe at Henry and, at one point, lunged at the 19-year-old. Several players intervened to prevent Izzo from physically attacking Henry.
In the postgame interview, Izzo defended his action, declaring that he was just getting the message across that winning in the NCAA tournament demands a certain level of effort and that Henry wasn’t performing well enough. Later in the game, Henry made several key plays to help the Spartans defeat Bradley 76–65 and advance to the second round. Izzo thought that justified his behavior.
In the post-game ESPN wrap-up, one of its basketball experts, Dan Dakich, former Indiana player and coach, pooh-poohed the Izzo outburst as perfectly acceptable because, after all, the stakes were high. Now that they were playing in a one-and-done tournament, comportment and demeanor are out the window.
Oh, really? Where is the ESPN reporter who was hell-bent on gathering information in her effort to label the University of Maryland football team as a “toxic program”? The constant barrage of insinuations that Terp coaches were too demeaning and demanding of their players, which was picked up by every major news network and repeated for months, was enough to cost head coach DJ Durkin his job. Does Izzo’s Michigan State program get a free pass because it has a chance to win a national championship? Of course. That is the double standard that we see in today’s sports coverage.
Here’s a little exercise in hypocrisy. Substitute Durkin’s name for Izzo and Maryland’s football team for Michigan State. I’m pretty sure we all know how that played out. But, in the case of the Spartans, because they are among the national powers, they are excused for their “toxic” behavior. By the way, this is the same university that was embroiled in the doctor/female Olympic gymnast scandal last year. Talk about “toxic.” Why are they allowed to even stay in the Big Ten Conference with such a blotch on their athletic program?
Oh, yeah. Money.
This is nothing new. If we want to understand why it has become more acceptable in our society to lie, cheat, physically assault people, sexually abuse and otherwise treat people in a demeaning way, we only have to look to how sports commentators seem to adhere to the Machiavellian principle that “the ends justifies the means.” The aforementioned behavior should be considered unacceptable in a civilized society. Yet, how many times have you heard a sports commentator say something like, “Yes, but he’s a great player,” or “They can’t win without him,” or “He has apologized.”
So, Coach, how do you view Izzo’s meltdown?
There are two sides to the issue. All coaches, at every level, want players to perform their best. Many times, you have to push athletes to be able to reach their potential. That, I’m sure, is what Izzo was trying to do. This is the tricky part of coaching, because a coach must be demanding, yet should never demean a player publicly. The coach must be a teacher first and foremost. There is a difference between correcting a player in practice and physically or verbally attacking them. That has no place in sports. A coach has the responsibility to his athletes and his team to demonstrate that he is able to deal with pressure and challenging situations and keep a cool head.
You would like to think that those future Spartan basketball recruits who witnessed Izzo’s outburst would prefer to play for a coach who wouldn’t go after them physically. Unfortunately, our society does so much to glorify winners and champions that young players want to play for a championship team, regardless of the ill treatment. The sports media and many fans care little about an athlete’s character as long as he/she can produce highlight replays and help the team bring home a title. And the money.
Is there a solution?
First, institutions need to hire coaches who can teach the values that used to be the goals of all athletic programs: teamwork, dedication, work ethic, respect, accountability, perseverance, and developing a desire to be the best that you can be. Next, they need to monitor the program to insure that athletes are being treated fairly and respectfully. Coaches need to be held accountable for focusing on character development more than just winning. Finally, the “ends justifies the means” must never be an acceptable philosophy of any athletic program.
Surprisingly, there are athletic teams that have demonstrated that they can be very successful in winning while continuing to emphasize character development. They espouse a team-first philosophy and adhere to principles of accountability, discipline, fair play and sportsmanship.
Isn’t that what we want from our coaches? Isn’t that what we want emphasized by our sports commentators? Shouldn’t we, the public, demand that sports networks hire play-by-play announcers, color announcers, and analysts who can represent the values that athletics are trying to teach?