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Culture isn’t something that you can touch or sometimes even put into words easily. But as a colleague once told me, "you know it when you see it."

March Sadness

And that’s exactly what happened last Thursday night in Des Moines, Iowa—on TV and in front of millions of viewers. For about 30 seconds, America saw college basketball in a way that it’s rarely seen.

During a time out in the NCAA basketball tournament, Tom Izzo, head coach of the Michigan State Spartans, started yelling at one of his players, Aaron Henry. Izzo continued his tirade and, then, lurched at Henry—restrained quickly by one of his players as the cameras rolled.

Izzo’s behavior became a hot topic among TV analysts, on social media, and in press commentaries. Izzo himself labeled criticism as “ridiculous.” Many who cover sports came to his defense.

I listened carefully to why others condoned Izzo’s behavior. The conclusion I reached wasn't elusive. The culture of college basketball was the reason. Izzo did the best job of explaining it.

Swift and meaningful action would be taken at any college or university if a professor or staff member engaged in that kind of behavior with an undergraduate student. It just isn’t tolerated in higher ed … except, it seems, in big-time college sports.

He talked about his relationships with players—how he establishes relationships and strengthens them over time. Tough coaching is needed, he continued, so that players can improve and play their best. “To be accountable,” is the way he put it. It’s tough love.

One Spartan player after another (current and former) said the very same thing. “We know he loves us,” one player explained, “and that he’d do anything for us.” Another player said, “We need that kind of coaching.”

But what strikes me about the explanations is that they don't apply to other situations with which I'm familiar—situation that are culturally different.

Swift and meaningful action would be taken at any college or university if a professor or staff member engaged in that kind of behavior with an undergraduate student. It just isn’t tolerated in higher ed … except, it seems, in big-time college sports.

But in the sports culture, that behavior isn't just tolerated, it's exalted—labeled as ‘good coaching,’ ‘the way to win’ and ‘what makes coaches (like Izzo) special and great.”

I noticed that 'nimble' language was used to defend Izzo's actions. He didn’t confront, he yelled. Recruits know what’s in store before they commit to Michigan State. Other coaches do the same thing away from the cameras.

I also found lots of evidence that alternative opinions wouldn't be tolerated—not only on social media but in the sports industry, too. On CBS, Charles Barkley called Izzo's critics "jackasses." ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt concluded his TV commentary by saying “this matter doesn’t concern you.”

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Well, it does. But Van Pelt’s interpretation makes sense if you think about it from his preferred view the world—a view that many seem to share (just check out Twitter). Van Pelt thinks society is moving in the wrong direction and that all of us could benefit from strong leadership, like Izzo’s. “The world’s a scoreboard,” is the way Van Pelt put it, drawing a parallel between competing in sports and competing in life.

I get that. I just don’t buy it. You don't need to act that way, or to be treated that way, to be successful in life.

I don't endorse the culture that Van Pelt prefers or the culture in which Izzo lives. To me, it would be better if sports were governed by norms that guide broader society—not the other way around. It makes no sense to call people 'soft' and 'snowflakes' for that purpose either.

The problem as I see it is that the gap between social and sports norms is growing wider. And I'm especially concerned about that gap as it pertains to the revenue-producing college sports culture. There the gap is gaping.

  • Where else will you find coaches (executives) making big salaries when players (the workers) get none?
  • Where else will you find the dominance of Caucasians in management positions (athletic director and coaching positions) when the majority of workers (players) are African American?
  • Where else will you find professional sports masquerading as amateurism?

Answer: Nowhere else.

The problem with revenue-producing sports is that they've evolved to the point where they operate by a different set of rules. So when a coach confronts a player and does so in the most public of ways—and in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere—why should anybody be surprised? The sad reality is that many weren't. They called it a 'non-story.'

That's how bad things have become. It happens when conventions get turned upside down.

A number of years ago I consulted a psychologist about a knotty problem I was having in the workplace. I’ll never forget what he said: “When dysfunctionality becomes normalized, it becomes business as usual. Dysfunctionality then becomes functional, and what used to be functional gets tossed out the window, viewed as operationally irrelevant.”

What happened Thursday night says more about us—as a sports-made society and how we’ve permitted the sports culture to evolve—than it does about anything else.

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It's madness, people. And we own it.

Frank Fear

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