Stop tolerating abusive college coaches

Update, 4/19: Hatchell is out at UNC.

Here come the old-schoolers again, the ones who think harsh coaching is good coaching, that nothing builds character quite like an authority figure screaming at you from close range.

Here come the eye-rollers, the ones who shake their heads at today’s athletes. Too soft, they say. Too spoiled to take the kind of tough love that generations of players got from molders of young men and women.

The focus is again on those coaches this week after an in-game screaming jag from one legendary male college basketball coach and a sudden leave of absence for a legendary women’s coach. The latter, UNC’s Sylvia Hatchell, was placed on paid administrative leave along with three assistants Monday so an outside law firm “can review and assess the culture” of her program. The school has yet to specify what’s being investigated, but reports late Thursday say Hatchell allegedly went beyond verbal abuse to racially insensitive remarks and forcing players to play hurt.

In the wake of the UNC news, coaches at Tuesday’s Women’s Final Four press conference spoke about being more aware of language and how they treat players these days. One coach, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, thought this sensitivity had gone too far, complaining that the majority of coaches in America are “afraid” of their players now.

Said Auriemma: “More and more coaches are being told, ‘This is inappropriate; you’re not acting the right way.’ “

Good. We should be long past the time of tolerating or celebrating coaches who berate and denigrate their players, who engage in behavior that would be unacceptable in other workplaces. But when that abuse is questioned on a basketball court or football field, fans and old-schoolers leap to the defense of coaches with the same tired tropes about fragile athletes and how harsh treatment better prepares these young men and women for life.

So it was with Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo, who was caught on camera giving freshman Aaron Henry a faceful of loud love in the first round of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament. Izzo even had to be pulled back by another of his players. People around the program say it’s what the expressive coach has always done. Players say it’s who he’s always been — and that they know he loves them.

Perhaps so. As any parent knows, the line between pushing hard and pushing too hard can depend on those involved. But it was difficult to watch Izzo and Henry without thinking the coach had crossed into an uncomfortable place. Even more troubling, however, are all the high school and middle school coaches who see a Final Four coach get in his player’s face and think that this is what young men and women need, that this is how you win.

It’s not. It’s time to break the cycle of mentally, verbally and otherwise abusive behavior by coaches. It doesn’t build character. It just models behavior we wouldn’t want from any father, mother or boss. Other women’s basketball programs, including Georgia Tech, have fired coaches in recent years for mistreating players. If UNC finds abuse from any coach — men’s or women’s — it should do the same.