They’ve provided the sweat. Now they want some equity.
Millennials are changing the coach-athlete dynamic, looking for more of a partnership than a dictatorship.
For veteran college coaches, it can pose a dilemma: How far can you push a player in pursuit of excellence, and is it possible to still be heard both loud and clear?
This issue’s latest flare-up has surfaced at Iowa State, with former women’s basketball star Nikki Moody filing suit Friday against coach Bill Fennelly, the university and the state, claiming her civil rights were violated during four years of verbal harassment and racial discrimination (Moody is black, Fennelly white). The university vigorously denied the allegations.
Modern athletes want two things, according to Zak Boisvert, a 27-year-old assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Maine.
“They want to know that you care, and they also want to know why. They will no longer accept you just telling them to do things,” said Boisvert, who was previously on the coaching staffs at Division I Iona and Fairleigh Dickinson.
“If you don’t treat them right, if you’re not cultivating those relationships, all of a sudden, it’s going to cause the kid to look at other options.”
The most common option is to transfer to another school, which some 700 men’s basketball players decide to do annually.
But in extreme cases, athletes are taking to the court system to redress what they see as over-the-top behavior by their former coaches.
Iowa State’s troubles follow similar lawsuits at Holy Cross, where former basketball player Ashley Cooper received an undisclosed out-of-court settlement in 2014 over complaints that she was struck and verbally abused by veteran coach Bill Gibbons; and at Illinois, where seven women’s basketball players will split a $375,000 judgment after allegations of discrimination.
The issue of athlete abuse was grotesquely highlighted by a 2013 video showing then-Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice haranguing his players and even throwing basketballs at them during a typical practice.
“If you’re the student-athlete, how much of this abuse do you tolerate when you have such a disparity between the coach who is paid millions of dollars and the player who is told you get a scholarship and nothing else?” former college basketball player and U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen told the Washington Post then. “If that were occurring in the workplace, you would have 20 suits against the university every day.”
Universities have since become sensitive to the issue, trying to be proactive when questions about coaches’ behavior arise. Ankeny native Connie Yori this month resigned after 14 seasons as women’s basketball coach at Nebraska after that university conducted a two-month investigation into possible mistreatment of players, the Lincoln Journal Star reported. At Iowa, field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum was dismissed in August 2014 after a university probe into complaints that she was verbally abusive and forced athletes to compete while injured. She is suing to get her job back, claiming gender bias.
But it’s clear that the landscape has shifted in college sports, with athletes more vocal about asserting their rights and coaches being put on notice to police the way they interact with players.
“The Bob Knight kind of gruff, demanding style, I think that’s changed and it’s adapted to the modern athlete,” said Boisvert, referencing the famously prickly former Indiana men’s basketball coach. “And I think that’s a good thing. My relationship with my father is much different than my father’s relationship with my grandfather. It’s softer, as in there’s more attention to emotional intelligence.”
Emotional intelligence is not a phrase that most old-school coaches would ever utter. But it’s an inevitable byproduct of the direction society is heading, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
“We’ve given such carte blanche to coaches over the last 50 years, and that’s slowly changing,” Lebowitz said. “Athletes are starting to realize that ‘I shouldn’t be a commodity. I am human.’ They should be seen as young developing humans that have every right to be in an environment that teaches and nurtures them.”
That softening of attitudes doesn’t have to equate with softer athletes. Many of Fennelly’s former players rallied to his defense after the Moody lawsuit became public Monday. Playing sports at a high level is difficult, they noted, and a certain level of prodding is to be expected, even desired.
“He’s one of those coaches that, when you’re not doing something right, you’re going to get yelled at. If you’re at any good program in the nation, there’s not a coach that’s going to sit there and not say anything to you when you do something wrong,” said Nicole “Kidd” Blaskowsky, who recently completed her four-year career as an Iowa State guard and praised Fennelly’s coaching style.
“He’s yelled at white players. He’s yelled at black players. He’s yelled at foreign players.”
Jeffrey Huber doesn’t condone the yelling, but he does sympathize with coaches who must try to get through to elite athletes who may have been coddled throughout their formative years. Huber is a professor at Indiana and the author of “Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes.” He also was a coach on the U.S. Olympic diving team during the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Games.
Huber sees coaches as no different than traditional classroom teachers, all of whom inherit students who have been shaped by previous mentors.
“In my perception, it starts early where maybe a kid with some talent and giftedness gets treated differently, is allowed to get by with some character defects and behaviors that wouldn’t be tolerated otherwise,” Huber said. “I think one of the bigger reasons that teachers get out of the profession is they don’t know how to manage their classroom and discipline students, and I would say the same thing of coaches.
“I did some of my best coaching one-on-one in my office with an athlete who was upset, or crying. When you’re dealing with human beings, they’re complicated. You have to get that respect.”
The respect must go in both directions, though, or the modern athlete is likely to balk, Lebowitz said. He would like to see a national system of certification for coaches, who would take courses in how to relate to players of different genders, races and sexual orientation, for example.
To those who decry that as new-age, touchy-feely nonsense, Lebowitz answers:
“Every generation looks at the next generation or two generations away and starts saying, ‘In my day …’ Is the athlete entitled or just looking for better behavior? We have to realize that one person’s experience is that person’s experience. It’s not to say the coach is at fault. It’s not to say the perceptions of the athletes are wrong.”
Marty Martinez has been counseling athletes at Iowa State for years as coordinator of the university’s Sport Psychology Services. He offers them confidentiality. They frequently unload their doubts and frustrations on him. It isn’t uncommon for him to hear an athlete claim to be on the verge of quitting.
That part hasn’t changed, Martinez said. Athletes making the transition to Division I sports often feel overwhelmed by the challenge, surprised at how tired they are.
What has changed is that they are now more likely to express those fears, particularly through social media. They expect to be heard, and coaches must be attuned to that.
“Coaches have to be adept these days at picking up which (players) don’t need as much attention, which ones need it more, while at the same time treating everyone fairly,” Martinez said. “Athletes often come to me feeling some injustice or feeling they’re not being heard, feeling like circumstances have to be a certain way for them to be successful. I try to empower them to raise their voice more in more respectful ways. I don’t think athletes are more disgruntled these days, but you certainly can hear their concerns more.”
In the end, not everyone is cut out for the rigors of Division I athletics. Toccara Ross, a Davenport native who spent her final three seasons as a forward at Iowa State before graduating in 2009, admitted as much, offering a defense for her former coach that could also indicate why some players didn’t warm to him.
“There were days when certain kids couldn’t hack it,” Ross said of Fennelly’s practice sessions. “He’s just one of those coaches that, if you’re mentally weak, you’re just not going to play at that level. And that goes for teams like the Tennessees of the world, the Connecticuts of the world.”
The Register’s Tommy Birch contributed to this story.
Photo: Kelsey Kremer/The Register, Kelsey Kremer/The Register