Rutgers Isn't Unique

Last week, Rutgers coach Petra Martin resigned (not willingly, it seems) after swimmers came forward to say what they had experienced swimming for her at Rutgers.

Among the accounts, swimmers recounted Martin shaming them over their weight, making inappropriate comments about their mental health, and dangerous, unnecessary underwater swimming.

What shook me reading this story was not the things that Martin were accused of. Unfortunately, experience has taught me that this behavior is common and accepted in college sports and beyond. What troubled me is that Rutgers, because of their own history, felt above-average compulsion to actually do something about it.

I swam for a Division III college and coached at two Division 1 universities. The behavior ascribed to Martin is eerily similar to what I experienced as a swimmer and as a coach.

Looking back, I have some regrets. At the first stop in my college coaching career, I got too caught up in trying to make it as a college coach. I was excited to be working at an Ivy League school and getting "my shot"

I didn't speak up about what was right. I feel ashamed about it, and whenever I hear that it's business as usual back where I started, I feel like it's partly my fault. 

As a swimmer before that, I did speak up. I reported what I knew to multiple administrators, including within the last year. I know that one reason it fell on deaf ears was how I seemed: like an angry, disaffected young man. I was angry, for sure, abusive behavior has a way of putting you in a place where you seem like an unreliable narrator.

At my second coaching stop, I spoke out as well. I knew that once again, bathed in anger, I was not likely to be taken seriously. I could be easily discounted as an angry employee who had a disagreement with his boss. I wish it were that simple. After I left, athletes came to me to tell what they had experienced and I encouraged them to use the processes available to them.

I knew that in both cases I was seriously hurting my own career, that I would be marked as "disloyal". Why we value "loyalty" in sports as if we were some kind of military force when the stakes are far lower has never made sense to me. 

I have also heard, secondhand, of similar behavior across a wide swath of college athletics teams- my experience both as a coach and a swimmer were not atypical. 

I hope this will change. Before Martin resigned from Rutgers, the overwhelming narrative coming out of the school was how she was turning around the competitiveness of the team.

Had athletes not come forward, that would continue to be the narrative, and coaches looking to earn their way ahead might "learn" that abusive behavior is the way to the top of the coaching pile.

As coaches, despite the fact that coaching is "our tribe", I think we need to be the leading force in change. Despite all the pressure and competitiveness, there is a better way to coach that's also better for people. We may be in the dark ages of coaching, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.