Ain’t That Tough Enough??

By Rick Morrissey
Updated: January 3, 2010

CHICAGO — A male athlete can recover from being called slow, fat and stupid.

The courts can call him a convicted felon, and it won’t necessarily affect his playing career.

But imply that he’s soft, and not even steel wool will be able to remove the stain.

The spark that led to the firing of Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is not in dispute. James, a wide receiver, was rightly held out of practice because of a concussion.

From there, it gets murky. James said that Leach, as punishment, confined him to a small, dark room. Leach denied the accusation.

The school ousted Leach, who’s trying to recover an $800,000 bonus.

For male athletes in a team setting, there’s something almost primal about the need to avoid being seen as soft. It’s a dynamic coaches count on. The threat of being thought of as a wuss makes athletes go beyond where they might otherwise go, oftentimes for the better.

But it also can lead to abuses.

It’s a fine line, and football coaches, especially at the college level, are constantly walking along it. Excessive practice time?

Pretend you don’t notice. Injuries? Minimize their severity. A player can have a few broken ribs, and his coach will say he’s ”nicked.”

Easy for him to say.

It’s interesting that the latest allegation of abuse is taking place at Texas Tech, which used to employ former Indiana coach Bob Knight, who made a career out of winning and raging.

The Leach controversy is following the same path that the standard Knight controversy followed:

Coach allegedly abuses player. Player’s side of the story gets out.

Coach’s toadies mount campaign to discredit player.

It’s what happened in 2000 when a videotape emerged of Knight aggressively putting his hand around the neck of Indiana basketball player Neil Reed. It wasn’t long before some of Knight’s former players came out of the woodwork to attack Reed’s character: He was soft, had a bad attitude, didn’t want to work, etc.

”Guys that have transferred from here and had reasons for transferring from here and [blaming Knight for] verbally and physically abusing them, I mean that just shows that you have not developed into a man,” former Hoosiers guard A.J. Guyton told at the time. ”…

I think that is the main reason why this guy, Neil Reed, is coming out with these statements.”

We see the same pattern playing out in the Leach case. One of his assistants, Lincoln Riley, recently described James as ”unusually lazy and entitled” in a letter to Texas Tech administrators. He also wrote that James is the kind of person who makes ”excuses or blames people for things that go wrong in his life.”

At Tech, Riley was a walk-on quarterback for a year, a student assistant to Leach and a graduate assistant before being named receivers coach.

To say he owes his career to Leach would be the understatement of the year.

This was war, and Riley knew which side he was on. And war’s just another word for football, isn’t it? Why do you think so many coaches are fascinated by the military?

General George Patton almost lost his command during World War II for slapping a shell-shocked soldier and calling him a coward. It wouldn’t take much imagination to picture Patton as a football coach in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. Woody Hayes, the late Ohio State coach who ultimately lost his job for slugging an opposing player, idolized Patton.

Guess who one of Knight’s heroes was. Yep: Hayes.

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War could stay in print based on sales to football coaches alone.

Coaches complain about today’s athlete generally feeling more entitled, and they’re right. Parents have aided and abetted. Their kid is special, deserves more playing time and is being mistreated. The kid, who has lived his life through his parents’ warped lens, can’t help but agree.

It doesn’t mean abuse always is a figment of a spoiled athlete’s imagination. But the burden of proof needs to lie with the coaches, not the athletes. It’s what comes with being in a position of responsibility and power. Power unchecked can lead to trouble.

What distinguishes James’ case from others is that he has someone prominent on his side. His father, Craig, is a college football analyst for ESPN. That put the kid in a stronger position as Texas Tech officials tried to figure out what to do. His story wasn’t going away.

But neither is the suggestion that he’s not tough enough.