THROWBACK THURSDAY – I’m not pointing fingers at Sheryl Swoopes or the other coaches who are under fire for players leaving their program. I’m also not going to blame my college coach, Don Perrelli, a complicated, volatile character I have yet to write about to date. I’m not ready to yet for reasons I’ll explain once I get there. For now, I’ll just say that in light of the Swoopes story, I found myself thinking about the day Neil Milbert, a life-long sports writer from the Chicago Tribune, said something I did not expect to hear from a journalist.
Neil Milbert told a few people that he felt Coach Perrelli was verbally abusive of me and of my backcourt teammate, Moira Kennelly. I think his statement got back to me around my third year at NU or maybe my fourth. My first reaction was relief. I can go on for too long right now about all the negative memories I have of Perrelli. I can’t even write yet about the day he threw me off the team along with another teammate, because I have to check-in with the teammate, and also check-in with myself. For now, I can only focus on what Neil said that one day, through two other people – that our coach was verbally abusing us. I knew he was right, but how right? And it’s not like he was physically or sexually abusing us. We were athletes. Coaches yelled at us all the time. And if they were not yelling at me, they were yelling at a teammate, or I was hearing a coach from the opposing team tear up another player. Sneakers squeaked, balls bounced, coaches screamed – all the time.
My second reaction was that I knew Neil probably should not have said what he did. As a journalist-in-training, I knew it was not good form, yet he sat so close to the drama for so long. A man of few words, he was speaking from his heart. He saw the way Perrelli raved about us in the post-game after we won. Arm around the shoulder, big smiles and acrobatic moves on the sideline when things were going well. And when they were not, you treaded in his wrath carefully. You didn’t emote. You tried not to crack a joke or smile, which was really hard to do considering how funny the Kennelly sisters were.
And the last reaction I remember having to what Neil Milbert said is that not once in all that chaos did I ever think of leaving Northwestern. If my dad or any parent walked up to Coach Perrelli, he’d say, “One-hundred and twenty five thousand dollars is what she’s getting for free at one of the best universities in the country.”
This harsh, military-like, my-way-or-the-highway approach was the norm. It was not part of the territory – it was the territory and tone almost all the time. I would have received it at Stanford, Duke, Wake Forest, and most of the schools that recruited me. I read about how Geno acts on and off the court. From my distant seat, I am going to guess that the difference with Geno is that you get complete honesty. He’s not acting like one person one minute, and a different person the next. He’ll clown around and goof off when you are off the court. Yet when that whistle blows, he will break you down to pieces, and see if you’re tough enough to build yourself back up. He won’t help you – he’ll tell you how to help yourself and it’s on you to do it, or face the consequences if you choose otherwise.
I text my close friend who played in the Big Ten and is now a college coach. She said that Swoopes had no training ground where she could transition for a player who probably operated one way and withstood heavy doses of harsh criticism. She said that as is the case for most former pros who pursue the coaching ranks, the administration probably did not think she needed any work, preparation or auditing. Do any administrators in athletic departments regularly remind staff that their job has become corporate? Even when we don’t think that what we just said or did should appear on the radar, do they teach coaches that student-athletes – the employees – come from a different mentality? It’s a mentality that we cannot put our heads around let alone know how to handle. We need a list of steps. We need a witness. We need to be taught to not react and to tame all facial expressions for even they can be perceived as harassment these days.
Do we even acknowledge how many AAU teams – some of which are sponsored by shoe companies or corporate donations – have had teams of people supporting teenage kids? Do we consider that they’re coming from AAU teams where they get free gear and constant media coverage, in their minds anyway? How many kids these days don’t have to pay for being on that special brand-name team? My teammates and I scraped our way through AAU season and paid the fees even at discounted rates of the tournaments and showcases where we needed to be. Nobody picked up the check. I think one of our AAU teammates left college and transferred because she was homesick. The rest of us sucked it up and made the most of it.
So now top high school recruits attend a college or university that would cost them $250,000 if they were unable to take a round ball and put it in a basket. And it doesn’t stop there – they get a head coach, 2-3 assistant coaches, a graduate assistant, a director of basketball operations, tutors, an academic department, a team mother/alum, boosters, video interns, managers, nutritionists, psychologists, a strength coach all working for 12 student-athletes. All of those people supporting 12 players. This structure is beyond a team or program. It’s a structure that feels, looks and is treated like either a production or a corporation or both. And we know how much the talent gets away with on a set. We also know that corporations cannot function without regular performance reviews, trails of notes, and a human resource department that insists there are witnesses to everything.
We all know that most employees – especially senior staff – cannot rip into anyone in corporate America and get away with it for too long, not even if they have much room and significant evidence to give the person an honest wake-up call about carrying his or her workload.
I text my friend back saying that not once did I ever think of leaving. Granted I lost a year due to a knee injury so it would not have been doable, yet my friend and I both agreed today when she wrote, “Nobody left. Rarely did it happen. You only left if you got kicked off.” Even when I got kicked off the team (to be written about at a later time and place), I thought, “Oh my god. What am I going to tell people?”
I won’t ever forget the way Perrelli tore into me. I remember the entire halftime chat at Indiana after I let a player burn me at the buzzer. I remember being at the door telling Moira, “He’s going to kill me” and almost breaking down, thinking he had all the room to do it because I kept screwing up. I kept thinking I deserve it, and I remember her saying, “It’s okay, Mo. You’ll be okay.” The entire 10 minutes was on how badly I sucked and we sucked and all the things we were not doing. I remember the two weeks when he stopped looking at me in practice. I remember the night he threw me off the team like it was yesterday. I also remember all his pats on the back, and his comments on my writing and academics. I also remember reaching the lowest of lows, which was when the bottom fell out and that’s precisely when I completely shut him off and took my passion back. I remember how good I was at nodding my head when he was screaming at me and humiliating me in front of thousands of fans. It stopped being humiliating to me because after I shut off his over-the-top nonsense and listened to what he was saying, I nodded my head, and I listened to him and more importantly, to myself. I soon found out that person was so much tougher because I had endured his wrath. I am not sure if his volatility helped me or hurt me, but I know for sure that no boss can ever rattle me ever again because Perrelli threw everything he had at me, and I decided to prevail. It is both a blessing and a curse to be that strong as a woman in particular. My ability to stand up in the face of heat probably makes it better for me to be an entrepreneur and work only for myself.
My friend and I text back and forth today and agreed 100 percent on these points:
Our parents raised us not to question authority.
We did not quit.
We just did it.
I’m sure Neil Milbert who saw it all up close would agree. I bet he’d also say that times have changed. Honest approaches are not selling these days, and it seems like it’s up to the athletic departments to get more corporate with witnesses, intervention and assurance that coaches can coach, and players can play without fear of losing their jobs.