Former Rutgers coach Mike Rice at a game against Syracuse, January 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli)
The firing of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice created a media frenzy that extended far beyond the sports page. Those who are now choosing to rush to his defense are unintentionally telling an even more important story. This story is about power and powerlessness. It's about bullies and the bullied. And, if we look hard enough, it's about a cultural battle for the soul of sports.
As we witnessed on videotape, Coach Rice called his players "faggots", "cunts," "fairies" and "pussies." He meted out physical abuse as well: kicking, pushing and throwing balls at the teenagers under his charge. This glimpse behind the curtain of NCAA athletics caused everyone from LeBron James to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to physically recoil. Well, almost everyone.
For Fox News Host Sean Hannity, Mike Rice's firing constituted something of a national tragedy. “I kind of like old-fashioned discipline," he said. "Maybe we need a little more discipline in society and maybe we don’t have to be a bunch of wimps for the rest of our lives… My father hit me with a belt and I turned out okay!” Eric Bolling, the guy on Fox News who dresses like he’s on his way to a nightclub in 1996, was even more horrified. He described the firing as symbolic of "the wussification of America" as well as a symbol of "our culture in freefall."
Their defense of Rice is actually quite helpful. Often we use phrases like "jock culture" or "bullying culture" as if culture is like some kind of mysterious fog obstructing our collective vision. But "culture" is not like the weather (cloudy with a 10 percent chance of misogyny). It is directly tied to politics, organization and powerful people with a vested interest in oppression. For the mouthpieces at Fox News and those pulling their strings, they defend Coach Mike Rice because they’re in a panic that there is a culture war afoot and, at best, they resemble Custer. In this war, they see every cultural sphere—Hollywood, music, politics—as a battleground but perhaps none is either as important or slipping through their grasp quite like sports.
The sports world—particularly men's sports—is the place where homophobia has historically found safe harbor. But in the last several years, there has been a decisive shift. Jocks have been on the front lines building organizations like You Can Play and Athlete Ally aimed at making the locker room a safe space for their LGBT friends and teammates. Individual pros like Kenneth Faried and Eric Winston have lent their names to activist campaigns. Brenden Ayanbadejo, recently of the Baltimore Ravens, announced this week that he was speaking to four NFL players who may come out of the closet simultaneously before the start of this season. Kobe Bryant—someone caught on camera several years ago dropping “the other f bomb” is now admonishing his Twitter followers for anti-gay slurs. The hysteria of Hannity and his ilk in defense of Coach Rice is quite simple: they’re losing and they know it.