Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Mike Leach Debacle Wrap-Up

I grew up as a boy in the 1970s and '80s in a small industrial town in northern Ohio, which is another way of saying that I grew up a rabid fan of football in general, and of the Cleveland Browns in particular. After owner Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore because the taxpayers of Cuyahoga county declined to build him a new stadium (so that he could go from being merely wildly rich to uber-rich), I gave up following professional football. At that point I turned my attentions exclusively to my "other" team in the collegiate ranks, the Ohio State Buckeyes. But over the past ten years even following college football has left rather a sour taste in my mouth. College football is deeply corrupt--huge amounts of cash slosh around the system, coaches get millions while their players get, at best, a free education typically valued at something like $15,000 per year, and a huge number of these boys are duped because they aren't equipped for college and can't make the NFL--and is only surpassed in ickiness by (men's) college basketball.

And then comes Mike Leach.

Leach, for the non-football fans reading this who aren't aware, was the coach of the Texas Tech Red Raiders. He had just finished a successful season and was one year into a five-year, $12-million stint as the boss. Alas, reports began to surface before their bowl game that he had locked a player in a confined area because he had complained about suffering the effects of a concussion. In the sports media, there was an amazing attention to what to me seemed fairly unimportant details: the player (Adam James) was the son of an ESPN analyst so there was a question of the boy using his father's leverage to exact revenge against the coach; James was described by Leach as "lazy" and not having a solid work ethic; James was placed in an unlit space with no room to move...or maybe not, and maybe was well-lit, or remarkably dark. Yet despite multiple stories combing over these details, the essential fact never was in dispute: Coach Leach took one of his players and locked him away as punishment for some infraction. Does anything else really matter, like whether he was in a dark or lit room? I say no. I call this a sadistic act of a megalomaniac--and any waffling about the particulars ignores this reality.

Suppose, for one moment, that Adam James was lazy and had no work ethic. So what? The coach has the option of benching the player in the hopes of motivating him (cf Nate Robinson's 41-point return to the Knicks after being benched for a month). He can exclude him from practice. He can, as an extreme, drop the player from the team. But locking a kid in any kind of closet is assault. I am glad his ass got canned, and pray that his work as a head coach in the college ranks is over. (I noted that a quick blurb on says he might be up for the head coach job at the Oakland Raiders for next year. Let's see you try those motivational tactics out with professionals, Mike!)

But Leach's story is really only the most disgusting in a year where some exceptionally ugly facts about all levels of football have come into sharp relief. The columnist Gregg Easterbrook has a really good discussion about the significance of Leach's firing. His main point:

You don't need to be a bully to be an effective football coach -- you can treat players in a respectful manner, while holding your own ego in check. But bullies are drawn to football coaching, and the fact that so many coaches get away with little-god behavior is an indictment both of the sport's culture and of the lack of supervision by the schools coaches work for.

At the Rubin blog, we agree. And the Leach incident is trivial by comparison to death by heatstroke, with one of the most recent episodes happening to a 16 year-old kid in Maryland this past July. Of the 39 heat-related football deaths since 1995, 29 have occurred at the high school level. Normally this is exactly the kind of statistic that drives me bananas--40 kids dying over a 15-year period is a remarkably small number compared to the overall number of total deaths of kids under 18 for that time span (roughly the number would be something like just under 200,000). But these are, in theory, totally unnecessary deaths, and appear to occur because some small-time coach with a big-time Napoleon complex thought that a kid asking for water on a 90-degree day while running drills was only something a sissy would ask for. Think I'm kidding? Follow this link to learn of Coach David Jason Stinson of Louisville, KY, who was charged with reckless homicide and wanton endangerment after a player died of heatstroke in 2008. Coach Stinson "ordered [wind sprints] as punishment for lack of effort on a day where the temperature...[was] 94 degrees." Despite such compelling facts, it took the jury 90 minutes to acquit Stinson. Stories like these make Billy wish he did have conventional religious beliefs about the afterlife, because then he would rest more comfortably in the knowledge that Coach Stinson would roast in hell for eternity. Alas.

To cap things off, the NFL has been dealing with the problem of concussions, and doing it rather poorly. Despite mounting, compelling data suggesting that frequent hits to the head in football dramatically increase the risk of later neurologic problems including dementia, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dragged his feet until the season was nearly over before issuing an allegedly "stringent" new concussion policy in December. Again, the small number of NFL players affected does not make this a public health problem. But as the above article notes, "the culture of playing through brain injuries in the NFL has also influenced younger players...because the governing bodies at the college and high school levels do not have rules regarding concussion management, amateur players routinely return after concussions, even after they are evaluated by a doctor or athletic trainer." [my emphasis]

Now that's a public health problem.


  1. Finally some common sense! It has been absolutely absurd to read on and on and on about what the James boy was like or what his father did. the entire issue is what Coach Leach did, and what he did was punish an injured player. No excuse, and Leach should never coach kids again...ever.

  2. might help to get your facts checked.

  3. Which facts? I'm an amateur operation but I take great care to get my facts correct. Please let me know what I wrote that's suspect, and you will have a retraction and correction forthwith.

  4. What facts ??? How about he was never locked anywhere, Show one statement where he was Locked up.

  5. You know, it's funny. Every night I pray to the Gods of the Blog that I will get some relatively intelligent internet traffic my way if I continue to write what I hope are reasonably thoughtful pieces either loosely or directly connected to the themes of medicine and health. And, indeed, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, as in the case of Anonymous #1 above, who for all I know is a mother of 3 kids and lives in Iowa. With time, as I build up a readership brick by electronic brick, so to speak, I am heartened by such replies.

    But alas, on a post like this the other half is represented by Anonymous #2, who wants to drip condescension with his/her/its three consecutive question marks. I can only continue to hope.

    "What facts ???" Anon#2 asks in total shock, talking to me as if I am an idiot, demanding that I "show one statement where he was locked up". Well, here it is:

    "Texas Tech has released a signed, sworn affidavit from an athletic trainer who says former coach Mike Leach instructed him to 'lock' receiver Adam James in a dark place and that he disagreed with Leach's treatment of James after the player was diagnosed with a concussion."

    This wasn't posted on some out-of-the-way news organization, but rather on with a readership of millions of people. The link is here:
    It's worth reading because the actual act of locking the kid away is only half the outrage, as Leach had apparently clearly instructed the assistant to put Adam James in the "coldest, darkest place possible."

    Now Anon#2 might regard the statements of the assistant, Steve Pincock, as untrue, since Pincock substantially changed his original story several days earlier. I have two thoughts about this. First is that I am much more likely to believe the second explanation, not only because it was a sworn affidavit, but also because the first version screams of damage control from a guy who still thinks Leach might remain his boss. Second is that, regardless of which version you believe, -I- have clearly demonstrated that my facts were in order when I initially posted this. It's up to you, Anon, but I think a mea culpa is in order.

  6. To possibly improve your mood when it comes to things football-related, I highly recommend the movie "The Blind Side." It's one of those movies that you would say is too corny but is true, so you let it off the hook, and are glad that there are real, heartwarming stories out there in the world (to be turned into books and movies....). And this is coming from someone who'd rank football as fourth among the major sports she'd choose to watch. (And fifth, if you add soccer.)

  7. Liddy! You're still my friend! I think I am four or five months in arrears on a personal note to you. Sincere apologies; you will hear from me informally sometime soon.

    I made it halfway through Michael Lewis's book and enjoyed it (but kind-of quit because the heartwarming story wasn't what I was looking for; I thought the book was going to be a "football version" of his excellent book Moneyball). The movie has been recommended by friends of mine from all parts of the cultural spectrum, which I think speaks well of it. Plus, while Sandra Bullock isn't exactly Julia Roberts, likewise she isn't hard on the eyes. (The Cro-Magnon will now pipe down.)

    There has been a discussion of this post amongst some friends in Facebook and one person pointed out quite rightly that had Leach was fired for insubordination to the University President rather than what he did to Adam James; had he kept quiet and laid low he still would probably be working there (which to me only indicates the extent of his megalomania). Another friend touched on the topic of NFL players, which by my reckoning is much, much worse than what college or high school kids endure--particularly when their "careers" are over, usually after only a few years for most linemen. And for me that's even more depressing because I'm really a fan of the pro game rather than the amateur version.

  8. Excellent post. The problem starts with the attitude of parents whose grade school children are in competitive sports. The rabid win-at-all costs mentality is supposed to justify harsh and abusive treatment at all levels.

    I can't believe how parents will allow or even encourage a coach to treat their kids with abuse. Perhaps they get vicarious pleasure out of it.

    And please don't take crass anonmyous comments seriously.

  9. Thanks Joseph. I agree about the win-at-all-costs mentality, although I wonder about whether it starts in the pee-wee ranks or it filters down from the pro ranks given how much attention it now receives. I mean, when I was a kid, it wasn't like we were ignorant of the Browns/Indians/Cavs/+/-Buckeyes. But that was well before ESPN where round-the-clock coverage has had such a major impact on how Americans think about the meaning of sports and winning. I'm not sure, though: I quit playing organized football--despite the fact that I loved playing it--in 5th grade because the new coach seemed to me to be a win-win!-WIN! proto-fascist type (and there didn't seem to be an abundance of those types in baseball, which I played well into high school). So maybe the situation hasn't really changed, although my gut tells me it has, for the worse, and you may well be right that too many parents have just become too warped about the real value of amateurs playing team sports.

    For boys, that is. I was trying to figure out a way to include a discussion of women's athletics, which really has been a boon to girls across the country since the institution of Title IX in 1972 (bravo, Ms. Patsy Mink!). Multiple studies on girls from elementary school through college have shown that participation in sports increases girls' sense of self-esteem, has a positive impact on their academic performance, etc. It could be a bias issue (i.e. the girls more likely to succeed and have higher self-esteem naturally tend toward participating in sports) but I suspect that the data describe a real-world effect. For boys, my guess is that sports can have a positive impact (especially in regard to self-discipline and goal-setting, e.g.) but just as often can be the source of anxiety and insecurity.

  10. Thanks for your thorough reply. Reflecting on what you wrote, what comes to mind is the effect of competition in the young women I see with eating disorders. While accessibility to many sports has helped girls to develop self-esteem, the intense competition in some "women's sports" has led to problems. I have had girls in gymnastics, dance, and running describe the pressure to be thin in order to compete, and how coaches put pressure on them.

    True, not all coaches are doing this, and there is more awareness now that women actually perform better, at least in running, if they are eating well. But I pulled my daughters out of their high school dance team because of the pressure to perform even if injured for the good of the team. And the parents felt this was good for character. It was sick. (I've practiced martial arts for 30 years and am a physician, so my concerns about long term health were based on experience, but that didn't seem to matter to that group.)

    I have read a little about the PE program in Naperville?? Illinois, and it seems to do an excellent job at building self-esteem by using physical activity to increase body awarness and skill. They seem to avoid competition. Also, in my kung fu training we did not compete. There were no "belts" and the instructor was clear that we were there to learn and have fun.

    So I agree with you about athletics being very important. I think that the competitive emphasis poisons what is otherwise healthy.

    My motto to my patients is that "If you are really playing, then you are not keeping score."

  11. There's a very interesting story line developing about boys' sports anxiety in the new TNT show, "Men of a Certain Age," with Ray Romano. Romano's son is on various sports teams, yet is unable to go through with the tournament, at bat, etc., due to what seems to be some kind of performance anxiety. Romano's character, while not a sports writer as in his prior show, is clearly a sports nut and it makes the viewer wonder how much the son is just on the teams to please his dad or what's going on there. I suspect they are building up these incidents to tacklet the issue -- sorry for the pun -- head on in a later episode.

    From what I gather, it's much harder for boys not to be good at sports (at least team sports) than for girls (maybe that changes in high school, when they can be cool based on something else, like being in a band?) and I'll bet the pushiness of coaches and parents that seems to have increased since our childhood just makes it worse.