Keeping Score

Latest Rutgers Scandal: Does Verbal Abuse Have A Place In Society?

New Rutgers athletic director Juile Hermann says speaks of a "canyon" between intensity and abuse. Why it's actually a tightrope.

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Julie Hermann is introduced as Rutgers University's athletic director in Piscataway, N.J., on May 15, 2013.

It’s hard to believe much of the news that has come out of Rutgers University the last few months. First, the athletic leadership of the school watched a tape of basketball coach Mike Rice hurling balls at the heads of players, and shouting homophobic slurs at them, but did not dismiss Rice until after the tape went public. Then the man hired to replace Rice, Eddie Jordan, was touted as having a degree in health and physical education from the school, even though, oops, he never actually graduated.

Now, the latest: Julie Hermann, hired as Rutgers athletic director in May to replace Tim Pernetti — who was fired in the wake of the Rice scandal — was allegedly a verbally abusive coach herself. On Sunday, the Newark Star-Ledger uncovered a letter that players from the 1996 University of Tennessee volleyball team wrote to the school, accusing Hermann of calling her team “whores, alcoholics, and learning disabled.” The video of Rice going ballistic, played in an endless loop, was extremely damaging to Rutgers. As was hearing former Tennessee players tell a national television audience that the new Rutgers AD called them whores.

Hermann has denied the allegations, and said she hasn’t considered resigning. Rutgers has said that Hermann will keep her job. But if you’re a fan of Rutgers, or just someone concerned about how authority figures, whether they be coaches, teachers or bosses, behave, here’s what should concern you most: Hermann, whose main job as athletic director is to hire and fire coaches, said that, for coaches, “there is a big canyon between being super-intense and abuse.”

Big canyon? It’s more like a hairline crack, and Hermann should know better. There are a million different ways to lead people. Some do it with the gentle touch. But for others, niceness is not in their nature. They’re maniacal, and that’s fine. But the best maniacs walk a tightrope — their motivational techniques make you angry, have you hating them, maybe even fearing them. But they get results. They make you better, and looking back, you’re glad you encountered them.

(MORE: At Final Four, It’s Mike Rice On The Mind)

In a book to be released in October, for example, former Wall Street Journal deputy managing editor Joanne Lipman explores the fine art of tough love. In Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Expectations, Lipman writes about her school music teacher, who many students feared. However, Lipman and her friends grew to appreciate him, and when he died, his students poured in from all over the country for a final concert in his memory.

“Mr. K. pushed us harder than our parents, harder than our other teachers, and through sheer force of will made us better than we had any right to be,” Lipman wrote about her teacher in a 2010 New York Times Op-Ed. ¬†“He scared the daylight out of us.

“I doubt any of us realized how much we loved him for it.”

I, too, have seen such harsh teaching up close. My college basketball coach — Hall of Famer Peter Carril, of Princeton — walked the tightrope between effectiveness and going a bit too far. He was on the right side of the line. He taught us the value of personal responsibility and discipline. And Carril made us better players. Most of my teammates can now laugh, fondly even, at some of his antics, and we’re glad we have those stories to tell. We consider ourselves lucky he coached us.

(MORE: Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections On A Historic Upset)

Hermann, it seems, failed the tightrope test. “When you attack a person’s character to the point where it has no impact on their game, there’s no rhyme or reason to it, you’ve crossed the line,”¬†says Kim Obiala, the office manager for a Savannha, Ga. skin pathology lab, who was a sophomore on that 1996 Lady Vols volleyball team.

Obiala knows leaders don’t have to be saints. “I don’t mind yelling,” she says. “I’ve had crazy coaches in my day. I can handle the physical stuff. Push me until I pass out. That’s sports. That’s why we play. But the when you’re 19-years-old, and hearing the coach talk about body weight – that’s not necessary.”

“I know I’m not a wuss,” says Obiala.

Obiala insists she had no agenda. When she heard that Hermann had been hired as Rutgers AD, she laughed at the irony. She didn’t go public about past events until the Star-Ledger reporter called her, and asked her about Hermann’s coaching. “I just told the truth,” Obiala says. But now that the story is out there, Obiala — mother of two girls, who are 7 and 5 — is convinced it carries an important message.”I don’t see the need for that kind of thing in athletics,” Obiala says. “There was a fear there. It took my love of volleyball away.” It’s also personal. “As a mom now, I teach my kids about bullying,” Obiala says. “I want to show them that I stood up against a bully. ‘Look what we did.'”

Hopefully, Obiala and her teammates will have helped keep coaches on the right side of the tightrope. And out of those s0-called canyons.

(MORE: Rutgers and Maryland Bolt For Big Ten – Are These Conference Shake-Ups Worth It?)