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Shame on Rutgers — Shame on Us

A deeper look into the culture of youth sports

Rutgers Basketball Coach Mike Rice

The basketball scandal at Rutgers University is just one in a series of disturbing stories to emerge in recent years about adults entrusted to develop the talents of young athletes. Following the public airing of videos that showed Mike Rice kicking and shoving players and chiding them with gay slurs, he was fired as Rutgers basketball coach.

Damage control began immediately. Rutgers President Robert Barchi held a town hall meeting in Newark to discuss the incident. Despite knowledge of the videos for five months, Barchi never watched them until they became public. Why? Was Rutgers basketball program more important than its players?

Most people were appalled by these videos, which spread quickly on the TV news and internet, including ESPN. According to the ESPN story, Governor Chris Christie asked, “What parent would let this animal back into their living room to try to recruit their son?”

Like the scandal at Penn State that broke in 2011 involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of at least eight boys, the news media will cover this story for months, numerous jobs will be lost; and the blame and shame will be distributed widely.

But who is to blame? Really.

Do we read the headlines and miss the deeper psychological aspects of these stories?

Do we ever see our own behavior in the mirror? Or do we blame only those publically caught in the act of shaming children for the sake of the win?

In VJ Stanley’s new book, Stop the Tsunami in Youth Sports, he shares a common story of why today’s sports officials have such high turnover. One official said, “A coach yelled at me for an entire half and when I threw him out of the game, he started yelling obscenities at me in front of his players.” Those players were eight-year-olds.

Many coaches and parents regularly express anger, push, bully, and scream obscenities each day in American youth sports. It’s a culture that starts early and gets reinforced throughout elementary, middle school, high school, and college.

While Governor Christie asked, “What parent would let this animal [Mike Rice] back into their living room to try to recruit their son?” his question doesn’t go deep enough. We need to ask, “What parents would stand by and allow a culture of youth shaming to exist in their schools and communities?”

Are you one of those parents? Admittedly, I’ve witnessed public shaming of young athletes myself. I felt very uncomfortable. But I didn’t act on my feelings. And that makes you and me a part of the problem.

The Cost of Shame

According to Fox News, the Sandusky scandal has already cost Penn State $43M. As Rutgers gets mired in legal battles, it will cost them handsomely too.

But the real cost of shame cannot be measured in dollars. It is measured in traumatized childhoods that can incapacitate its victims and negatively affect their relationships for years to come.

Shame is a human feeling of being defective, inadequate, or flawed. It is triggered in young people when adults show frustration, disappointment, or anger when children don’t perform to expectations.

Psychologist and trauma specialist Dr. Sharon Stanley has studied the neuroscience of shame. Producing cognitive, emotional and physical effects, shame changes the neural circuits of the brain. These neural changes can hold a young person in a state of both active defense (ready to fight) and helplessness.

“This neural state," says Stanley, “is like pushing on a car’s accelerator while holding down the brake.” The accelerator will help players win the game but the brake distorts their sense of self-worth.

Shame hurts. As a result, young people cope in different ways. They may become:

  • Vulnerable people pleasers: Wanting to feel important and loved, they seek out individuals who might prey on their emotional needs, like Jerry Sandusky. They endure emotional, physical, or sexual abuse because they are convinced someone cares for them and has their best interests at heart.
  • Bullies: Feeling deep shame, rage, and powerlessness themselves, they develop a tendency to control, blame, and shame others. Shame is one of the underlying psychological causes of bullying.

“Using shame to motivate for sports or academic performance,” says Stanley “is a lazy and harmful practice.”

While there is clear blame to be placed on Mike Rice and other Rutgers officials, isn’t it time to look beyond the headlines – at the culture of youth sports?

How are we all responsible? Do children deserve better?

Playing the Game – Without Shame

Studies show that coaches are key players in youth sports. When they use positive reinforcement, give effective feedback, and create a caring climate, they provide the best developmental outcomes for youth.

But it’s not coaches alone that bear responsibility for today’s culture of youth sports. When shame is used by any adult to motivate players, others need to intervene. Standing silent reinforces behavior that harms kids.

Blame and shame. Together, they create a vicious cycle that can win games. But at what cost?

It’s time to discuss this issue openly. I invite you to share your opinions, comments, and stories.

©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Follow her at ROOTS OF ACTION, TWITTER, or FACEBOOK.

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