- Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Staff Writer
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MIAMI -- Ray Allen couldn’t believe what he had just seen.
This was shortly before Tuesday’s night’s loss against the New York Knicks, and Allen had just walked out of the trainer’s room where he and a few teammates watched video of Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice physically and verbally abusing his athletes on the court. This was the first time any of them had seen the footage on ESPN’s Outside the Lines report.
Allen sat down on the padded leather chair in front of his locker and held court with a few reporters. Allen is a member of the board of directors at his alma mater UConn and a former NBA teammate of Eric Murdock, whose testimony was heavily featured in the investigative report as a former coach under Rice.
Naturally, Allen had some thoughts.
“It was despicable,” Allen said. “Throwing the ball at them … It made me want to fight him.”
As a board member at UConn, Allen speaks from a position of power in the NCAA world. What if Rice’s actions happened at UConn?
“I would do everything I could to make sure that coach got fired -- in any sport -- because there’s no place for that.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Rice had indeed been fired by Rutgers University.
But the desire to act violent toward Rice was a common reaction shared by many NBA athletes. Just a few minutes before Allen spoke to reporters, his teammate LeBron James had tweeted out the following to his seven million followers:
“If my son played for Rutgers or a coach like that he would have some real explaining to do and I’m still gone whoop on him afterwards! C’mon.”
Like James and several others who took to Twitter on Tuesday, Allen wanted to physically punish Rice.
He saw himself in those Rutgers athletes.
“It made me want to fight this guy because that was me,” Allen said. “Wanting to learn, making mistakes. You’re not doing it on purpose. You’re trying to learn. And that’s what coaches should do -- you teach. Yelling at kids and throwing the ball at them, there’s no place to that.”
Did all the Heat players who watched the video with Allen share that opinion?
“Everybody,” Allen said. “You can ask anybody in our locker room that saw that video, they feel the same way, that if the ball came at me like that, I’d throw that right back at him. But we say that now, as professionals.”
Allen recalled a few times that his high school coach would throw a ball rack in a fit of rage, but that’s about it. Allen played for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at UConn for three years in the mid-1990s. Calhoun certainly yelled at his players just as all coaches do. But it never crossed that line that Rice did, according to Allen.
Then Allen, a father himself, shifted into parent mode.
“Now as a parent,” Allen began, “where I went and places I’ve gone in my career, my parents lent me to all these different people -- I’ve been raised not only by my mom and dad but by AAU coaches, high school coaches and my college coach. All of them had a hand in getting me where I am today.
“Parents trust that they send their kids … that a coach comes into your home and says, ‘I’m going to turn your daughter or your son into a young woman or young man and grow them and make sure they learn the most valuable lessons and that they’re able to play professionally afterwards or in a career they choose.’ And that’s good and I hope we can get them to that.
“That’s what we trust in our kids and the teachers of higher learning. If that system is flawed, then we as a community have to make sure that we do something about it.”
If Allen outlines what the NCAA is supposed to be about, Shane Battier knows why it falls painfully short of that ideal.
As of Tuesday night, Battier had not seen the video. But he had heard about it. Like Allen, Battier played for a Hall of Fame coach in college. In many ways, Battier idolizes Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and considers him a life mentor.
But Battier does not envy him. Even though Battier is regarded as one of the brightest NBA players around, he has said he does not want to get into coaching, which many have suggested as the next logical step in his career. Especially at the college level.
He sees a poisonous atmosphere in the NCAA ranks and when he heard about Rice’s actions, he was not surprised. How could something like that happen? Battier pointed to two things: the unique culture of sports and the corrupted system of the NCAA.
“It’s allowed to happen because the rules that govern athletics are different than the rules that govern society,” Battier said. “Not saying that it’s right. But it’s different.”
In typical Battier fashion, he used an analogy.
“Look, I can’t go to the supermarket and box out Mrs. Robinson for position in the checkout line. I’m going to jail for that. That’s assault. This is almost like a modern-day form of, call it what you will -- not necessarily gladiators -- but the rules that govern (sports) is different than society.”
Basketball is a physical game fueled by aggression and machismo. But as Battier sees it, if you mix in a financially-imbalanced NCAA system where coaches have seven-figure salaries and its players aren’t allowed to make a dime off their skills, the culture can often times become toxic. It’s unfortunate, in Battier’s eyes, that the Rutgers situation happened, but it is not entirely unexpected.
“A college player is really at the mercy of the coach because that coach can make life a living hell for him if they really wanted to,” Battier said. “If the player wants to leave the program, the coach can hold onto (a waiver) because of the letter of intent. This is the whole farce of the NCAA. It could alter a kid’s entire life course. And there’s no punishment for it. It’s a travesty, it really is.”
By NCAA rule, players that sign a national letter of intent (NLI) are required to attend that school for at least one academic year. It seems unfair to the player or “student-athlete” in many ways and can create a situation where the player has little choice but to put up with abusive behavior.
If an NCAA athlete decides to break the NLI agreement to leave a school, the player, by rule, must sit out for a year before returning to the court for the player’s new school. And often times, the school can block a player’s transfer if it wants, forcing the player to stick with a program even if it’s untenable. And in some cases, an athlete isn’t allowed to receive a scholarship until they’ve attended the school for a year. For those that can’t afford a college education and require a scholarship to attend school, this could feel like a trap designed to empower the school.
“If the coach really wants to stick it to you, he doesn’t have to release you,” Battier said. “So you have to go to a D-III school. If they really want to be a jerk about it, most coaches don’t, but if they don’t want players to transfer to a rival or in-conference, it ruins the whole purpose of the student-athlete experience.”
Because of the circumstances, the ugly situation at Rutgers does not shock Battier. He wishes the culture would change, but that it starts from the top.
“It’s just the code of college athletics and the code of the locker room that’s messed up,” Battier said. “But some people justify it.”