Tough Love Part 1: What Does Abusive Coaching Look Like?

That’s a good question, and one that the college sports world doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive answer to. Sometimes, it’s hard to draw a line between tough coaching and abuse in athletic environments where athletes are conditioned to endure physical pain and tough things out mentally on a daily basis. However, almost everyone can agree that ex-Maryland head football coach DJ Durkin was an abusive coach.

For those unfamiliar with Durkin, ESPN’s full account of his abuse is located here. The Sparknotes version is that Durkin cultivated a team based on fear, threats, and intimidation. The abuse was so severe that one of his players died during training, after which, Durkin was placed on administrative leave, reinstated, and then reluctantly fired by the University of Maryland only after students protested his reinstatement in October 2018.

In spite of his track record, Durkin was hired by University of Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin to serve as an assistant coach on Thursday. I wish I was making that up, but it’s clear that Kiffin and the athletic department at Ole Miss either don’t view Durkin as an abuser, or they don’t care. And since the NCAA does not define (or ban) abusive coaching, it often goes unchecked and unpunished, even if the physical and mental health ramifications are life-altering.

Abuse in athletic settings is hard to identify for many reasons, mainly because it is often not physical. Coaches would be foolish to physically assault athletes who are almost always physically stronger than them. Although some of Durkin’s abuse was physical in nature, most of it was not, which makes it that much harder to identify. So, my next few posts will cover key elements of coach abuse (scholarship threats, body shaming, verbal abuse, and overtraining/physical abuse), as well as the physical and mental health effects exhibited in athletes who experience them.

I don’t want to end this post with “happy” new year, but may 2020 be the year universities stop hiring coaches who should arguably be in jail, and hold abusers accountable instead of offering them second chances.

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