To read a couple of California newspaper columnists last week, you would think that California men's basketball coach Mike Montgomery is the devil, a child abuser, responsible for global warming, and a bad dancer. You've surely seen the video by now: in Cal's Feb. 17 takedown of USC, Montgomery got in the face of star guard Allen Crabbe, giving him a handcheck to the upper torso that may as well be called "the shove heard round the world."
Montgomery's physical treatment of a player drew scorn from a wide range of critics: the PAC-12, a state senator, and a San Jose commentator who said the coach's action was "shameful." In its statement on the incident, the conference let it be known that it expected its coaches not to make a media spectacle of themselves:
"While emotions can run high in competitive environments, Pac-12 coaches are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that will reflect credit on the institution and the conference," Commissioner Larry Scott said. "Each Pac-12 coach must be aware that they are an example to student-athletes and other students, and consistent with this influence and visibility, must meet a particularly high standard."
While the voices calling for a strong rebuke or stiff punishment have been many, the bigger issue I find with the situation is that it again underscores a certain neutering of the male athlete - and perhaps a broader emasculation of the modern male in general.
DISCLAIMER: the sensitive nature of this very topic borders on political, and this commentary is not offered as political punditry, and I would remind my fellow 11warriors that we don't talk politics here, especially given last week's political fiascoes. That said, the issue of coaches "getting physical" is important, and should be discussed in our erstwhile forum.
To give you the background on this, I had completely missed this story until halftime of the Buckeyes' win over Michigan State Sunday. The CBS Sports studio crew discussed the incident, with most of the big-name analysts more or less dismissing the incident as an aberration. Greg Anthony, however, took a stance that caught my attention: "There was a time when this was socially acceptable."
Anthony discussed the fact that "back in the day," it was relatively common for coaches to give the young men in their charge a physical wakeup call in the vein of Montgomery giving Crabbe a pectoral shiver. CBS columnist Gregg Doyel, however, was quick to separate the Montgomery incident from other player altercations of yesteryear, including the infamous shot taken by our own beloved Woody Hayes:
I didn't see a bully. I didn't see a monster. I didn't see Woody Hayes slugging or Bob Knight choking or even Morehead State coach Sean Woods shoving and then verbally destroying a player.
Yes, like you I think the Hayes incident was much ado about nothing, but that's water long since under the bridge. I personally think The General is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, and Indiana was foolish to run him out of Bloomington.
While a fair bit of the Doyel column discusses the situation in the context of bullying, a strong current in the popular conversation surrounding the Cal incident, he goes on to make some great points about the role of physical correction in coaching:
Mike Montgomery wanted to win that game against Southern California, and he knew his players wanted to win that game. He knew Allen Crabbe, his best player, had more to give and he tried to make him give it. And it worked, though I'd be saying this same thing -- hope I would, anyway -- even if Crabbe hadn't scored 10 points in the final 4½ minutes to rally Cal from a 15-point deficit to victory.
Now then, there's a line a coach can't cross and Montgomery got up close to that line. He was breathing on that line, and that line could tell by the smell of his breath that Montgomery was chewing Dentyne.
Maybe that's your problem, that Montgomery came too close to the line, and you're OK that his school and his conference and even his state senator let him know that another inch would have been too far. That's one way of looking at it, but it wouldn't be accurate. Because if you'll notice in the comments from his AD and the Pac-12 and even Sen. Yee, nobody said anything like, "What he did was OK, but not another inch." No, what everyone said was, "Mike Montgomery went too far."
Allen Crabbe clearly thought he went too far, by the way. Crabbe eventually poured in those points and sparked that comeback victory, but his first reaction to Montgomery's shove was shock, anguish. He left the court and angrily paced a nearby tunnel before returning to the bench. Allen Crabbe was not the slightest bit OK that his coach shoved him in the chest.
Watching the video of Crabbe's on-court reaction to the shove, by the way, underscores the importance of "getting physical." Not unlike a petulant child, Crabbe stomped off into the corner and pouted for some time before being cajoled back onto the court and delivering a much stronger performance to help the Bears seal the victory. Does the end - a victory - justify the means?
Before you answer that question, understand that it's the wrong question to ask in the first place. The physical correction was not about winning a basketball game - it was about getting the attention of a star performer turning in a half-ass performance. It was a wake-up call.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. The concept of physical correction is a frequent source of controversy and consternation among dog trainers (see here and here), and yes, even among members of our Armed Forces. Opinions on the use of physical force to correct behavior or performance, of course, are mixed and often emotional. As it relates to dog training, for what it's worth, I ascribe to the philosophies espoused by the Monks of New Skete and Temple Grandin: physical correction absolutely plays a role in proper training and development, should be used sparingly and only when the trainer doing the correction understands the appropriate force and method to use in a given situation.
But we're not talking about training dogs, are we? No, we're talking about molding young men. The differences are obvious, but the parallels should be as well.
Anthony said it plainly: what is socially acceptable today pales in comparison to what was socially acceptable 10, 20 and especially 30 years ago. In many cases, that is a great thing. When it comes to the shaping of young men, I fear the opposite is true (said as a man raised in a home where Dad's hand across his son's backsides was the ultimate deterrent to bad behavior).
I began to explore this concept in a newspaper column I wrote several years ago on the subject of "the problem with boys." I got started on the subject after reading comments from author and therapist Michael Gurian in his book, “The Purpose of Boys.”
“Girls outperform boys in nearly every academic area,” Gurian writes. “Many of the old principles of education are diminished. In a classroom of 30 kids, about five boys will begin to fail in the first few years of preschool and elementary school. By fifth grade, they will be diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD/ADHD, behaviorally disordered or unmotivated.”
Gurian went on to point out that the challenge of educating boys gets even more difficult after being labeled: “They will no longer do their homework (though they may say they are doing it), they will disrupt class or withdraw from it. They will find a few islands of competence (like video games or computers) and overemphasize those.”
Know any young boys who fit that description?
The author stressed that there are differences – some subtle, others more pronounced – between boys and girls of school age. “Boys have a lot of Huck Finn in them – they don’t, on average, learn as well as girls by sitting still, concentrating, multitasking, listening to words. For 20 years, I have been taking brain research into homes and classrooms to show teachers, parents and others how differently boys and girls learn. Once a person sees a PET or SPECT scan of a boy’s brain and a girl’s brain, showing the different ways these brains learn, they understand. As one teacher put it to me, ‘Wow, no wonder we’re having so many problems with boys.’”
Now, think about the Crabbe correction in the context of Gurian's comments. Is Crabbe's reaction to the correction merely an exhibition of the male ego at work, the beta dog called out by the pack alpha going off to lick his chops before coming back into the fold and getting line?
WALK THE LINE. Last week I read an interesting column, "The Incredible Shrinking Man." In it, writer Joel Hilliker observes that the modern male is suffering from a crisis of ambition, and that the woman of today is the man of our fathers' generation:
Measurements of men’s shriveling ambitions are everywhere. Consider the five milestones that sociologists traditionally use to define the transition to adulthood: finishing school, leaving the parents’ nest, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child. In 1960, about two thirds of men had passed all five milestones by age 30. By 2000, it had dropped to half that. In 1970, four in five 25-to-29-year-old men were married. Now the figure is two in five.
What are these guys doing? Nearly six in ten of them—among 18-to-24-year-old males—live with their parents. Even among 25-to-34-year-olds, it’s still almost two in ten.
Lest you think this is simply a sign of today’s troubled economy, consider: Those figures are almost double the rate among women the same age.
And forget masculine financial independence. Nearly 60 percent of parents are giving money to their grown kids—a lot of money. Adults between ages 18 and 34 who enjoy parental subsidies receive a hearty average of $38,340 a year. It’s localized Social Security, flipped upside down, with older workers supporting younger “retirees.”
And wouldn’t you know it, young men seem perfectly content with—or perhaps complacent about—their dependency. They’ve grown up in a world that praises them indiscriminately and teaches them never to judge. As a result, research shows, these “failures to launch” actually have ample self-esteem, and they’re confident success will come to them (though they’re not necessarily motivated to chase it down). They feel plenty good about themselves, living in Mom’s basement.
By way of disclaimer, Hilliker writes for the official news magazine of the Philadelphia Church of God, so the entire piece reads as though it could easily come from a conservative pundit. I tell you that only by way of warning - I'm not sharing the piece to make this a discussion of politics or religion, but rather to open the discussion on an important issue: how do we rear our children, specifically young men who are - by most every measure - falling way behind their female counterparts?
California state Senator Leland Yee (D., Calif.), sees the issue as fairly black and white as it relates to athletic coaches: it is a hands-off proposition.
"You don't allow a history professor to push a student as a learning lesson. I don't understand why you'd do that in the athletics department. While this is a basketball game, this is still part of the instructional program of the UC system," said Yee, a Cal alumnus who called for the university to suspend Montgomery for daring to lay a finger on Crabbe.
I'll agree with Doyell: there is a fine line to walk when it comes to employing the physical correction. Given the litigious nature of our society, and a "no liability is the best kind of liability" mindset among athletic and academic leaders, I'm guessing that the Gene Smiths of the world are telling their coaches that the party line is "no touching allowed." No one wants their most visible coaches engendering a media maelstrom, after all.
While the line to walk is very fine and fraught with potential pitfalls, as a father-to-be (I'm in the hospital for delivery as I'm writing this, btw) I worry about the societal trend toward turning legitimate physical corrections into appearances of child abuse. Yes, my parents spanked my brother and me - not paddled, because Dad didn't feel that added any more to the correction, though my maternal grandfather was fond of the hickory switch freshly picked from the tree out back - and I'm content to say that I've turned out just fine, and indeed feel like my parents did an exceptional job.
The bottom line is that Coach Montgomery did what he thought was right in the context of the game and his relationship with his star guard. It worked. Woody Hayes and Bobby Knight were passionate SOBs who got the best out of their players through a strong will and a firm hand. Young men today, I fear, are slipping through the cracks at an alarming rate - the disappearance of men like Hayes and the public branding of men like Montgomery can hardly be viewed as a mere coincidence in context.