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Tom Pantera

Tom Pantera
Fargo, North Dakota, U.S.
December 22
Managing editor
Extra Media, Inc.
Middle-aged, divorced, liberal; nearly 30 years as a newspaper reporter. Pretty much a walking stereotype. By the way, many will deny it but people in Fargo do talk just like in the movie.


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OCTOBER 28, 2010 12:29PM

‘Motivation’ often an excuse for bad behavior

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North Dakota State University in Fargo apparently handled a problem with one of its coaches, but it still raises some larger questions – not for NDSU, but for society.

Erich Hinterstocker was the NDSU women’s volleyball coach who recently resigned. Early on, he said he quit because of the pressures of the job. But just days later, it came out that the coach apparently has a history of verbally and even physically abusing players and had, in fact, been warned by his bosses to cut it out. NDSU women’s Athletic Director Lynn Dorn said Hinterstocker was not pressured to resign, but that’s pretty obviously just a face-saving statement for everybody.

There’s much about the story that’ll never be known, of course. That includes the chain of events that led up to Hinterstocker’s actual resignation, as well as the real reasons behind it. But it’s fairly obvious this was a guy with a bit of a self-control problem when it comes to anger management.

NDSU is to be complimented for actually doing something about it. Hinterstocker was a successful coach, and they could’ve glossed over the problem. For whatever reason, they didn’t, and at least it’s a good thing that a guy who probably shouldn’t be coaching is no longer doing so.

One wonders, though, what would’ve happened had he been the football coach and the team was on the way to a national championship. I suspect that in that kind of situation, he could’ve been beating players like a gong and it would’ve been winked at. But maybe that’s just the cynic in me talking.

Still, it sort of makes me wonder: Why do we put up with that kind of behavior in athletics?

I was always glad my kids were in high school orchestra and theater, rather than athletics, because you rarely hear about behavior that extreme in those kinds of extracurricular activities. When’s the last time you heard about a high school play’s director rushing onstage when a kid blows a line, grabbing him and berating him in front of the audience?

I’ll admit that I ride this particular hobbyhorse because of my own experience as a failed high school football player. My coaches had a genius for psychological abuse. It wasn’t until years after my high school graduation that I could watch even an NFL game. Sometimes the abuse was of the grab-a-player-by-the-face-mask-and-yell-at-him variety, which happened to me during, of all things, a homecoming game (the last of three games in which I was a starter during my high school athletic career). Sometimes, it was more subtle; my coaches once came up with a scheme in which they actually segregated the benches by first, second and third string. We third stringers were in the back, on the right, and it was pretty obvious we wouldn’t be playing much.

Now, needless to say, one has to distinguish between college and high school coaches. At the biggest colleges, the athletic programs are pretty much farm clubs for professional teams; the players and coaches know that and adjust their expectations and behaviors accordingly. But even at high schools and smaller colleges, all too often coaches who abuse their players are excused as just being “tough” or “good motivators.”

At the big colleges, such behavior on the part of coaches more often draws an indulgent chuckle than the censure it so deserves. Bobby Knight, arguably the biggest jerk to ever work as a coach, could throw chairs around and do just about everything else and the prevailing attitude for most of his career was “Oh, that Bobby, what a whacky guy.” It took Woody Hayes punching a player from the opposing team to lose him his job at Ohio State. But these guys were successful, and all too many coaches consider them role models.

But while you have to expect that at the big, athletic-factory schools, and even at smaller colleges where the culture is different, there’s absolutely no excuse for a high school coach to act that way. In the first place, a high school team’s win-loss record should be absolutely the last consideration of the program, and whatever “motivating” of players that must be done shouldn’t be in the service of that. We’re talking kids here; a high school coach’s role is, first and foremost, that of teacher. And even the worst teacher knows on some level that humiliating a kid teaches them nothing other than lessons they shouldn’t learn, like how worthless they are compared to all the other kids.

There are occasional flare-ups about this or that high school coach here, but those generally are handled well. And often as not, what gets a coach here in trouble isn’t that he’s abusive, but that the star player’s parents don’t think junior’s getting enough playing time and they raise a great hue and cry about it. In other words, what usually gets a coach in trouble here is that he’s actually doing his job the right way, rather than favoring some Golden Child.

But as a society, we excuse a lot of bad behavior in athletics by telling ourselves it’s for the kids’ own good. That’s hogwash. We really excuse it because we think it shows some payoff in wins and losses. And we consider athletic wins more important than the psychological damage that mistreatment by a coach can do to a kid.

There aren’t many things more wrong than that.


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coaches, athletics

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