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College football doesn't have to be a hostile work environment

You can be a tough guy coach without crossing the line.

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NCAA Football: Indiana at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

In Middle School I played on the lowest level of traveling basketball. No one at that level has high school aspirations, much less professional. One of my teammates was not a good basketball player. The player was a 4 by default because he was taller than five feet. Personnel choices in Middle School are based exclusively on height. The player had a difficult time rebounding or scoring in the post, two rather important aspects of being a 4.

The coach was a competitive sort, a poorly veiled euphemism for someone who liked to scream at kids. The coach wanted us to be tough and competitive, so the coach screamed all through games because he did not know any other way to coach. Every time the player returned to the bench, the coach spent at least 30 seconds yelling at him for mistakes. When the player stepped onto the court, the coach screamed at him to be more aggressive. Several times during the season, the player was benched for the entirety of the second half after failing to grab a rebound. On two occasions, the player cried on the bench.

I watched all of this happen and did nothing. Neither did any of my teammates. We were kids, and besides we were all being screamed at too. Being screamed at again for standing up to an adult was out of the question. Besides, the other adults on the coaching staff never said anything to the coach. If the adults in the room did not have a problem with the behavior, why should we?

I recalled those unhappy memories again this week while reading ESPN’s chilling story about the football team at Maryland. Of course, the coach never called us pussy bitches if we did not sprint back fast enough. I never had a basketball thrown at my head. No one made me eat candy bars while other people worked out because they thought I was too fat. Most importantly, none of my teammates died playing a game.

Jordan McNair was a gentle giant, known for his smile and his ability to quote any episode of The Office. The family has set up a foundation in McNair’s honor. He died of heatstroke during a summer workout under the supervision of a staff that has been accused of routinely targeting players with epithet laced tirades that belittled their masculinity. The same staff allegedly used food as a weapon, making several players eat until the point of vomiting to gain weight.

There will be much more to this story, and most certainly accusations and counter accusations from supporters and detractors of either side. At least some of those voices will push a view that football is a combat sport that requires superhuman levels of physical and mental toughness. After all, what other possible reason could one have to make an injured player perform a one versus multiple tug of war contest? This argument is specious, resting on a profound misunderstanding of causality and used to prop up morally repugnant individuals. Those making it are complicit in a culture of abuse disguised as tough love.

Toughness is regularly used to defend behavior that would be obviously unacceptable in other workplace environments. The argument presumes that mental and physical toughness is a process that can only be developed at the edge or beyond. Consequently, Coaches need to call players pussy bitches if they do not go hard enough to the coach’s standards or else the team will win fewer games. Players have to run gassers in high heat when physically exhausted or they will not win the fourth quarter. Players must risk getting major medical problems in off-season workouts or they will not be able to beat their rivals.

Those are not hyperbole. Some or all of those justifications are used regularly across the college football landscape. Does that kind of argument seem ridiculous? Good. It should. There is a selection problem here, one that plagues observational and anecdotal research. There is no causal reason to believe that doing tough activities because we do not have a good counterfactual world in which the same players performed in a different environment. We never get to see the players perform and not perform the protocols at the same time, what Paul Holland termed “the fundamental problem of causal inference.” Just because coaches have had success with a method does not mean that the method is a good method. Our observations, even observations of hundreds or thousands of people are plagued by this selection process. It could be the case that the method works for some player. It could also be the case that even players that benefit would have benefited more from an environment that did not think flirting with physical and psychological abuse was an appropriate motivational tactic. Screaming and yelling to demean someone does not build toughness. It builds fear, anger, depression, and resentment. Embarrassing subordinates is not a sign of competitive fire. It is asshole behavior. Regularly pushing people beyond their physical limits does not expand their limits; it destroys the person along the way. Normalizing bad behavior does not make it good behavior; it makes it common behavior.

When we accept building “toughness”, or worse building men as appropriate reasons for people being horrible to others, we also miss the hilariously unequal power dynamic between coaches and players. College athletes continue to be in a gray area for employment purposes, in part because there are lots of similarities between players and employees. Coaches hold great power over players. They can determine when they take classes, when and where they work, how they work, and what they are and are not allowed to do when not working.

The trouble is that systems with large power differentials are rife for abuse. College athletes do not have the ability to collectively bargain with coaches or colleges. As a result, they cannot bargain over the duration and kinds of workouts, nor can they choose to skip them without severe consequences. Their scholarships, while less precarious than the past, are still not actual cash, and their health insurance and health providers get paid by schools. The socioeconomic status of most college football players also makes it unlikely that they could independently seek out and afford resources outside of the program. At the same time, football generates huge sums of money for universities who will always have at least some incentive to protect and support the institution over the employee.

Incidentally, this is precisely why players have good reason to fear retaliation from coaches and the university for speaking out against what players see to be wrong. When, to pick a representative example, Will Muschamp calls anonymous sources “gutless” one wonders how comfortable his players might be to bring up an issue with a man whose public screaming tirades are so common that there are listicles devoted to them.

Most importantly, coaches can exert power over players’ bodies. We normally think of this as a good thing, and it often is. Coaches turn linemen into monsters, running backs and linebackers into specimens, wide receivers and defensive backs into freaks. Players gorge on food because their bodies are not naturally as big as they need to be. They lift weights and do conditioning workouts to prepare their bodies to be in car crashes every Saturday. That power comes with responsibility, and every time we accept the argument that abusive behavior is designed to improve toughness we also have to accept that there are destroyed bodies on the other side.