On Political Correctness, the Media, and “Sporting” Behavior

April 6, 2013, 1:00 pm


But not always.

Back in 1973, Tricky Dick Nixon and I were hanging out on the porch at San Clemente, drinking scotch and tinkering with the enemies list. He said, “Radical,” (that’s what he called me, because “TR” made him think of 26′s big scary teeth); “Radical, never cover anything up. Things only get worse when those politically correct fa**ots find out.” (Have I ever told you that Dick had a neat way of inserting asterisks in words, and lengthy silences in sentences, even while speaking? It was really quite the party stunt.)

Since I tweeted Joe Nocera’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times about the belated firing of Rutgers basketball coach I’ve been mulling over this fictional but highly formative moment in my life history. Like Woodward and Bernstein, Nocera suggests we follow the money to understand what the complicated coverup and belated reveal in New Brunswick really means. The events at Rutgers, he argues, are connected to what is at stake in the bigger conference re-shuffle that Rutgers is part of and the television dollars connected to that shuffle.

Nocera also noted that assistant coach and whistle-blower Eric Murdoch’s less than virtuous motivation for releasing the video: he was seeking almost a million dollars in compensation following his termination. Click here to see an excerpt from ESPN’s “Outside the Lines”, with the practice footage of Rice’s abusive behavior and an interview with the ex-assistant, who is shocked, shocked that college athletes could be treated so badly. A former star at Providence and a nine-year NBA veteran, Murdoch is asked if he has ever seen a coach behave this way, and Murdoch responds firmly: “Never.” He follows by saying that he “was in total shock” and found it “unbelievable.”

I am going to suspend my disbelief about these statements, in service of a higher purpose: pointing out what issues about normative violence the media is not addressing in this matter.  In other words, what counts as “sporting behavior” and why?

Why was Rice’s normal public behavior not perceived as violent and abusive? The ESPN report begins with footage of MIke Rice flinging himself around the sidelines, shaking his fists, shouting, and whipping his hands around. These motions seem to pantomime the physical shoving, yelling and throwing of basketballs that the practice footage shows. And yet, like numerous other sources, the commentary articulates Rice’s bizarre antics as the professional norm, evidence of his “fiery style,” and his “coaching intensity.”

I have no doubt that bouncing around like a marionette and screaming at athletes is normal, having watched a lot of basketball in my day, but should it be? Interpreting rage, verbal abuse and threatening gestures as “intensity” is standard for sports commentary, and not just in the men’s game. Tennessee legend Pat Summitt was also routinely praised for behavior that I would have found terrifying had it been aimed at me (it once was, and I did); while there is longtime assistant at UConn who, it is common knowledge among Husky fans, is tasked with physically restraining Geno Auriemma so that he doesn’t rush onto the court in one is his rages.

This kind of behavior serves all the corporate interests attached to basketball, of course, making coaches into teevee “personalities” who can be guaranteed to liven up the first, often deadly, 90 percent of the game with their histrionics. In the women’s game, there is often enough of an achievement gap between the best and the rest, you need to have something other than a stuffed mascot to keep people tuned in for any part of a televised broadcast at all.

But why does no one connect the lack of self-control among coaches in to potentially broader problems about what counts as good coaching? And why do we think the few coaches who have been punished (several of them instantly re-hired by other programs) are aberrant?

Why did ESPN choose to highlight some of Rice’s words and not others, inconsistently disguising visual graphics with **? Watch the video.  Some slurs are bleeped out (we will get to that below), but are not written on the screen. Some slurs are bleeped out, and then written on the screen in case you didn’t get them! The practice tape contains bleeps, followed by these graphics:

  • “You f**king fairy.”
  • “You f**king fa**ot”

In case you are unfamiliar with idiomatic homophobia, the words that have been “disguised” are “fucking” and “faggot.”  What is obscene about the word faggot, I ask you? And why is it more upsetting to a general audience than fairy (which suggests effeminacy as well as run of the mill faggotry)? Or did we actually need the word fairy to understand fa**ot?

Are we destined for a moment in Homosexual History in which we refer to “the eff word,” just as media commenters use “the enn word” so they don’t have to be accused of saying ni**er by the roving forces of political correctness?

If  I am reading Eric Murdoch’s lips correctly, Rice did not just call his players as faggots and fairies, he also cursed them as “bitches” and “cunts.” So where’s the media critique of misogyny here? How is it that homophobia is taking all the weight? And while we’re at it, white men attacking black men for being lazy, stupid sexual degenerates used to be called racism.

But calling Mike Rice a racist at Tenured Radical might open us to charges of “political correctness.” Heaven forfend, as we are an island of political neutrality in the sea of wussification that is the contemporary left. In a rare moment in which I abandon all caution, however, I would like to point out that characterizing homophobia, racism and misogyny as offenses against political correctness is a crock of sh*t. As usual the charge is led by Fox:

  • Sean Hannity on Rice’s behavior, presumably including the verbal abuse, says: “I kinda like old fashioned discipline…I mean, have we become that politically correct? These are adults. If they don’t want to play for that team, they can leave.” Fox colleague Eric Bolling also sees concern over Rice’s behavior as a symptom of “political correctness” and “wussification.”
  • Conservative journalist Michelle Malkin responded to Hannity, saying that there should be consequences for true hate speech, but she wasn’t clear that Mike Rice met the test.   Rather, “the left,” as usual, made “such a big deal” out of Rice’s behavior. When asked by Hannity if military drill sergeants will now by accused of being politically incorrect for “trying to get the best” out of their soldiers by hitting, kicking and screaming hate speech, Malkin agrees that, indeed, “political correctness has run amok.”
  • Ricky Treon of the Amarillo Globe News says that his negative response to Rice’s behavior may be only due to the fact he “grew up in a very politically correct time.”

But a Rutgers internal report on Rice from 2012 authored by a consulting attorney also minimizes the problem of calling young men fairies, faggots, cunts, bitches and what have you by saying that this is only a violation of political correctness, not real harm.  Rice’s behaviors “while sometimes unorthodox, politically incorrect, or very aggressive, were within the bounds of proper conduct and training methods.”

So what are “the bounds of proper conduct?” And how did that change between 2012 and 2013? By creating media circuses around some schools — Rutgers and Penn State are only the most recent examples — we are intentionally distracted from what constitutes normal sporting behavior in many more athletic programs; what constitutes normal institutional tolerance of abusive coaching; and what the real consequences of this kind of social violence against student athletes are.

And now, readers, tell me: if a faculty member woke up a sleeping student by throwing a book at his or her head, would that be described as “intensity”? A “fiery teaching style”?  Enquiring minds want to know.

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