The Oregon State women’s basketball program is in the midst of a crisis of epic proportions. Only four players have remained in the program. All the others have left. The coach, LaVonda Wagner, has been fired and the university is planning to eat 1.2 million dollars to get rid of her. How, you might ask, could things go so wrong? According to this article (which I first read at women’s hoops blog), 23 people including 15 players, four assistant coaches and four support staff have left the program over the last four seasons.
The article goes on to chronicle a long list of Wagner’s alleged outrageous behaviors that created a climate of fear and intimidation prompting the mass exodus. It isn’t as if the players and their parents suffered the coach’s alleged abuse in silence. They did not. They complained to the athletic director and the university president, numerous times. But nothing was done. In many cases, their phone calls, emails and letters were not even answered. As late as the end of this season the athletic director said he fully supported Wagner.
What kind of behavior were the players and their parents concerned about? Wagner is accused of:
• Bullying or ignoring injured athletes (including one with a concussion, pressuring them to practice and play anyway.
• Throwing a chair during a locker room tirade (it barely missed a player).
• Psychologically intimidating and belittling players’ skills and effort.
• On a trip with the team, being removed from an airplane because she refused to get off her cell phone when directed to by the flight attendant.
• Ordering players to attend Weight Watchers and pay for it themselves because she thought they were too fat.
• Demoralizing some players so much they needed to get counseling.
• On road trips refusing to allow players out of their rooms except to practice and play games (even on a trip to Hawaii).
I think we can probably agree that these behaviors are completely unacceptable in an educational institution. Can you imagine if a professor treated students in her class like this? What is it that makes this bullying acceptable in athletics, which is supposed to be an integral part of the larger institution’s mission?
The athletic director and the university president were aware of the players’ and parents’ allegations. They chose not to respond or even investigate, it seems. Their silence and inaction, even if they did not actively support her (which it seems they did), was all that was needed to, if the allegations are true to ruin or damage the basketball dreams of at least 15 young women. What could they have possibly been thinking? How is that leadership by anyone’s standards?
You might be wondering what this has to do with LGBT issues in sport. Well, here it is – This is exactly what happens to many young women who are or are perceived to be gay by a coach who has a problem with lesbians on her or his team. Think Rene Portland at Penn State. I have talked to several mothers with lesbian daughters who face similar bullying and intimidation by coaches who have the power to ruin young women’s basketball careers and make their lives miserable and they feel justified in doing just that. Their administrators back them up or ignore what is happening.
Unfortunately, when parents or players try to talk to the coach, it often backfires and the targeting gets worse. If they take it to the next level by talking to the athletic director, either nothing changes or they find themselves sitting on the bench more, having their commitment or desire challenged, or having their skills relentless under attack. The coach holds all the cards and the AD backs her or him. The player has no power. You would think the parents might have more influence, but not so in many cases.
Bully coaches use public humiliation and constant criticism of a player’s desire, skill, and commitment. They call players names and grab their shirts. They make private threats – loss of playing time, revoking scholarships, public exposure of sexual orientation. And many of them do all this with impunity, knowing that what they do in “their” gym or “their” locker room will not be challenged.
I’ve talked to young women who try to tough it out. They don’t want to transfer. They like the school and their academic major. They have friends. They try to keep their heads down and stay out of the coach’s way. They know that if they file a formal complaint, their sports careers are over. They still try to hold on to the love of the game they once had, but it is difficult. Some players decide to quit the team. They abandon their basketball dreams. For a few, the light in their eyes goes out and they take years to heal.
It is way past time for athletic administrators and university leaders to take some responsibility for bully coaches, whether they are bullying on a specific issue, like having lesbian players on their teams, or just general all around bullies, like LaVonda Wagner is accused of being. The AD and upper administration at Oregon State is as much to blame as the coach is for the trauma in that program. Yet over and over, I hear the same story: The coach is a bully and no one with any power to investigate the charges will do anything about it, at least until the player hires a lawyer.
It is the administration’s responsibility to make sure their coaches know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior. Obviously, they cannot assume that the coaches know the difference when stories like Oregon State and Penn State and many others that do not become public keep happening. Somehow, along the way to the big-time in women’s sports, it seems that some coaches have lost their moral compasses. Having too much power can corrupt and often does. We only have to look at big-time men’s sports to see how it works. Is that where we are going? Or have we already arrived?
How do you think these athletic administrators and coaches feel about killing spirits and dreams? Do you think they care?
Bullying among middle school and high school students is a hot topic in education, but how can we stop peer bullying when students have bully role models among their coaches and teachers that is accepted or ignored by school administrators?