Last month, No. 5 Duke narrowly beat No. 1 Syracuse at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a tight, tense, well-played game between two elite college basketball teams, but it won't be remembered for anything the players did.
Instead, we'll recall the tantrum thrown by Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim. With 10 seconds left to play, a close block/charge call went Duke's way and negated a game-tying layup by Syracuse's C.J. Fair. Boeheim charged onto the court, irate, and got two technical fouls and an automatic ejection, essentially conceding the game in order to lodge his vehement protest.
"People will remember this one for 30 years because the old coach went out there and got a little excited," Boeheim said after the game. "I think the fans will remember Jim Boeheim down here."
Boeheim will be remembered regardless. He is a Hall of Famer who trails only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in career wins in NCAA men's basketball. He has been Syracuse's head coach for 38 years and an assistant for seven more. Boeheim is a legend, an institution, and he has remade Syracuse basketball in his virtual image.
Great coaches are to be respected, but it's a shame that they, not players, tend to dominate our associations with their schools' athletic programs—and, sometimes, their most important games. Boeheim was posed a hypothetical question after the game: What if C.J. Fair had gotten the technical instead? Boeheim responded that by team rule his players aren't "allowed" to get technical fouls. The theoretical consequences for getting one—which, of course, players certainly can—were left unaddressed.
In other words, even though the players execute the plays, their coaches retain all agency and authority. The concentration of power in a single person is obviously unjust, especially in team sports, and it's the opposite of teaching, but it's part of a system that rewards celebrity coaches, not players, with virtually all the money, power and fame. They accumulate their personal "win" totals, currency that makes them nearly untouchable. Coaches who satisfy school's (and rabid, rich boosters') directives to win at all costs may become dynastic legends with huge fiefdoms. We have the Dean E. Smith Center, not Hansbrough Hall; Krzyzewskiville, not Laettnerland. We have a statue of former Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, with four chillingly anonymous players pinned to the wall behind him.
The now-infamous statue was taken down in 2012, a casualty of the scandal of Jerry Sandusky's longtime sexual abuse of children under the protection of Paterno's program. Paterno is an exceptional case, but the insular environment under his leadership is not. With power comes the potential for its abuse, and not necessarily by the center of that power. Coaches can be exploited and damaged by the very cults of personality their programs create.
Lesser abuse, however, is common, like the sight of a grown man screaming at young players—not in principled, positive exhortation, which has a legitimate place in sports, but in a violent, egoistic rage that is almost pitiable. It seems to spring from internalized, uncontrollable pressure to win (Michigan State's maniacal Tom Izzo is perhaps the most frequent offender). We not only expect this behavior, we defend it, as when ESPN color commentator Dick Vitale brays that the coach "loves his kids." We parrot countless sports platitudes about "building toughness" that are often specious apologias for appalling mistreatment. (Can you imagine Erik Spoelstra, coach of the NBA's Miami Heat, screaming in LeBron James' face?)
There's little militating against the abuse of college players. The NCAA's legally upheld "student-athlete" designation, confected as a Newspeak shield against workers' comp claims, alienates players' constitutional rights. Abuse, though deplorable, isn't our target here; it's the larger system of money-mongering, celebrity worship and win-hunger that creates an impenetrable continuum of disparity.
The only way to stop it is to overhaul the system. Here is one radical but simple step—intended in the spirit of a thought experiment, because of course it will never happen: Take professional coaches off the sidelines. Make college sports more like, well, college. Professors don't follow you into your exam, screaming the right answers at you. They help you prepare, then step aside. The coach will still run practices, teach zone defenses and all the rest, but once the game starts, it will be coached just as it's played: by students.
Here is why. If you remove the locus of power, you disconnect much of the dangerous machinery it runs. And here is how: The student-coaches may be former players who have discovered a different but related calling, like trained actors who become directors or playwrights instead. Or they may be young visionaries with a high degree of sports intelligence: game theorists, so to speak. Incoming students would start out as assistant coaches and try to work their way up. The student-coaches will make substitutions, set up plays and call timeouts—and, yes, complain to referees. They might make their tactical decisions in collaboration with players, who would learn how to collaborate with a peer leader, rather than being subject to the one-way, top-down demands and whims of an irrefutable, sometimes irrational authority.
And here's the best part: they will lose. Student-coaches will make more mistakes than their professor coaches. They will show signs of nerves and inexperience, just like the players. And college games may once again feel like college games. It's easy to forget sometimes that these players responsible for unleashing a torrent of profanity from fans across America, because of a dropped pass or a missed free throw, might be just 18 or 19 years old. With a young coaching staff that is constantly turning over, we'll be likelier to forgive them. The high-stakes, high-profit contests that we currently have would be replaced with games that could be just as exciting but also less predictable, slick and commercial.
Great sports programs would not disappear. The Krzyzewskis and Izzos will stay on as esteemed professors, still able to recruit, and players and aspiring coaches will enroll at their schools in order to study with them. They'll make far less money, but they can also qualify for the job security of tenure; and the greatest of them, like UNC's Dean Smith, will still retire as revered figures and beloved teachers—which is what many claim, sometimes dubiously, to be: teachers.
So make them teachers, in the strict sense. Let's no longer have "athletic programs." Instead we could have sports departments, just like we have English and political science departments. Players could major in sports, enabling them to study formally the subject to which they're already devoting most of their time and energy. It is a totally legitimate field of interdisciplinary study. Instead of "rocks for jocks," we can develop a curriculum with science classes relevant to athletes' real discipline: exercise physiology, anatomy, nutrition. What we now know as "practice" could be called "lab," and players would earn credit-hours for it.
Sports departments can narrow the gap between academics and athletics—the very gap in which UNC-Chapel Hill's recent scandals concerning athlete-literacy and course-fraud took hold. And by folding college athletes back into campus academic life, we can better protect them against the sort of eligibility violations that tend to occur in extracurricular settings.
Sports departments aren't just for student-athletes, though; they're for all of us. Athletics are a deep, essential part of the American culture and economy, Yet sports studies programs are woefully scarce in American universities. It's time to change that, and the first step is to remove professional coaches from our focus and put it back on players, where it belongs. Then we can rebuild college athletics around the concept of the student-athlete in a nobler form: one in which both sides of the hyphen are of equal, and true, value.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cults of personality"