The Real Madness of Sports Culture

Over the past 48 hours, the American public was aghast at the tape of Rutgers men's basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing his players during practice, calling them "faggots" and "fairies," shoving them and throwing basketballs at them. Public furor finally forced Rutgers' hand, and Rice has now been fired, four months after Rutgers officials originally responded to the offence with little more than a slap on the wrist.

When they became aware of the tapes in December, Rutgers officials felt that a three-game suspension, a $50,000 fine and anger management counseling was an appropriate response. How is it possible that behavior that could lead to arrest in public is tolerated within the culture of sports? How is it that violently homophobic language is decried in school communities yet excused in the private world of teams? Imagine that Mike Rice was an English teacher, berating a student for a wrong answer in class. Or that he had called a player a "wetback" or the n-word, while calling out his error.

Public outrage at this incident has been widespread, and forced stronger action. But as we head into the Final Four weekend and the culmination of the annual "March Madness" for college basketball, we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility for the culture that made such an incident -- and such a ridiculously weak response in the first instance -- possible.

Sports and physical education are considered an important part of schooling for children worldwide. But we tolerate, and even celebrate, behaviors that are abusive in the name of "building character" and winning games. We turn a blind eye to the practice of humiliation and denigration. And we perpetuate the power and pervasive use of the ugliest homophobic slurs available in the culture by allowing them to be used as weapons in the service of "toughening up" young men.

There are signs that the tide is beginning to turn. The world of sports has begun a dialogue on its culture of homophobia. And the pathetic plight of former professional football players paying the ultimate price for their toughness is leading to basic questions about why playing through repeated injuries that could lead to dementia and early death is somehow a necessary component of being a "man."

But why does it take a sickening piece of direct video evidence of the prevailing culture of "winning" to provoke strong public reaction? To the extent that we do not stand up to these expectations and reject this language as fans and as a culture, we are complicit in the continued distortion of young athletes' expectations and sense of self-worth and in maintaining the sexist sense of "manhood" that fuels homophobia. The athletes pay an immediate price, if not directly than certainly in the message it sends that this behavior is acceptable from people in positions of power. And unless we finally say enough is enough, we will all pay in the long-term, as bullies thrive, young lives are warped, and education is sacrificed at the altar of winning teams.

But don't just take our word for it. Listen to the more than 8,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) middle and high school students who participated in GLSEN's 2011 National School Climate Survey. Nearly 75 percent of them reported feeling uncomfortable talking to their coaches or P.E. teachers about LGBT issues, 40 percent said they avoid locker rooms because they do not feel safe -- the place they avoid most on campus, and 28 percent of LGBT student-athletes were harassed or assaulted because of their sexual orientation while on a team.

So how's your bracket doing? Is it worth it?