Commentary

The case against cursing coaches

The line between teaching players and just swearing at them is getting harder to find

Originally Published: February 1, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

This struck me the third or fourth time the camera cut away from Coach K on the sideline Sunday while he berated one of the Blue Devils (lip-reading: NSFW) as the team walked off the court for a timeout: Bobby Knight was ahead of his time.

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Peyton Williams/Getty ImagesCoach K's Blue Devils have played only two teams with an RPI of 25 or better.

It's kind of a startling revelation, backed by the recent sideline behavior and language of (to name a few) the aforementioned Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Frank Martin and Ben Howland. How did this come about? Everything old becomes new again, but how did the old-school approach of in-your-face profanity become new school? And how did we go from recoiling in abject horror every time Knight did it to defending it as some sort of new-age attempt by middle-aged white men to relate to today's teenagers?

The Cult of Coach has gone mainstream over the past 20 years. As the salaries, the power and the arrogance have ratcheted skyward, the public seems to have become more and more like a catatonic blob sitting in the corner waiting for someone to wipe the drool off its chin.

Coach tells us what to do and how to do it, and when it's any of our business and when it isn't. For the most part, we're fine with that. Like most things that happen in high-level, revenue-producing college sports, we're content with our televisions and our drool. The guys raging courtside in their five-figure suits and $100 haircuts (OK, not you, Coach K) are simply characters in a show, and the only time we get worked up is when one of those spoiled kids on the court draws attention to himself.

(By the way, read "Play Their Hearts Out," by George Dohrmann. Two things will happen: (1) You'll never watch a game the same way again; and; (2) You might find room for a little sympathy for the kids on the court, not to mention a whole lot of 12-year-olds.)

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AP Photo/Charlie RiedelIn-your-face coaching, courtesy of Kansas State's Frank Martin.

When Calipari launched a most vulgar 12-letter insult at freshman Terrence Jones during a game in mid-January, there was a brief smattering of discussion. Calipari apologized -- via America's Avenue of Apology, Twitter -- and most people just shooed it away as another no-big-thing in a world full of them. These kids hear this language all the time … You ought to hear what they say to each other … In the heat of the moment, things get said.

And then there's the family analogy. Always the family analogy. These guys work so hard to turn the team into a family that they get to the point where they can say anything to each other. Which would be a wondrous bit of God's little utopia if it went both ways, which we all know it doesn't. And just because you try to foster a family environment on a college basketball team doesn't give you carte blanche to publicly humiliate a college kid by cursing him out on national television.

Demanding accountability is one thing. This is something completely different.

At the risk of being accused of clutching the rosary beads and casting fluttering eyes to the sky (too late, probably), shouldn't we demand better? It's worth asking the question: Do we lose a little of our collective dignity every time we accept this kind of behavior from some of the most influential people in sports? Yes, it's a game for big boys, and yes, they've heard all those words before; but isn't there a fundamental difference in seeing a coach use the word and seeing a coach tell a kid he is the word? Judging by the look on Jones' face, he thought so.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSometimes, dirty words can hurt. John Calipari apologized for his.

Every coach will tell you: It's "The Truman Show" out there. They're right. Everybody can either see you, hear you or read your lips. If we could figure out a way to read a coach's thoughts and scroll it across the bottom line, nobody would ever watch the game again. Could you imagine plugging into Frank Martin's thoughts during Saturday's loss to Kansas?

The public nature of the job is the reason coaches should show some restraint. They're being judged every time the camera turns on, and they have to understand they won't be wearing the five-figure suit if that camera goes away. Everyone still wants to play at Duke, and for good reason, but how many parents wince a little every time Coach K pinches his face into a tight little fist and lets it fly?

In a larger sense, there's something off about a system that calls for a coach to coddle an already-coddled 17-year-old to get him in his program, then curse him on national television once he's there. It's all part of the contradiction: The players are kids when it suits the coach's purpose to shield them from the public, but they're adults when the coach decides it's time to demand accountability (or less selfishness) in the most profane manner available.

Not long ago, it was considered old-fashioned to scream and swear at players. Now it's old-fashioned to question the screaming and swearing. Strange world.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com