Sports and Society: Cancel this culture

Two professional sports coaches, both alike in their innate lack of dignity, resigned or were fired in the last month over various instances of misconduct. It would seem we are in the middle of a reckoning on the unacceptable behavior of coaches. Except we aren’t. 

The terminations of former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden in the NFL and North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) smell like the beginning of a movement to end the toleration of coaches abusing their positions to the detriment of players and connected parties. 

But I don’t see this as a movement or a sudden moment of solidarity. If anything, this wave of removals represents more the reality that teams and governing bodies continue to tolerate coaches who verbally and physically harm players and defile the sanctity of leadership on America’s biggest teams unless media attention threatens their organizations’ bottom line.

Take Riley, who was fired by the Courage and had his coaching license revoked by U.S. Soccer following a bombshell report from The Athletic last month that he sexually and verbally abused players for years. Yet, even when the NWSL was informed of the findings of the Portland Thorns’ internal investigation against Riley in 2015 and later complaints against him, the league did nothing to prevent Riley from continuing his coaching career with the Courage a year later.

The Athletic’s report, however, threatened to bring a tidal wave of ill will from the league’s fans and corporate sponsors, and it prompted games to be cancelled the NWSL commissioner and general council to resign.

Gruden, by far the most high profile of the removals, was marred by controversy in recent week after over 650,000 emails, detailing a history of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, were reviewed by The New York Times. A single racist comment surfaced earlier, but Gruden was still on the sideline against the Chicago Bears the following Sunday. It was not until the Times report that Gruden resigned.

The league was likely aware of Gruden’s conduct throughout the course of the investigation, but when and to what extent is unknown because the NFL didn’t bother to request a detailed report of the investigation’s findings.

The failure of team organizations and leagues to reprimand coaches who repeatedly show their depravity in character and morality is a testament to their own apathetic view of this endemic issue and its larger allowance in American sports culture. After all, Ed Orgeron, former coach of the football team at Louisiana State University, one of the best programs in the country, stepped down not primarily because of allegations that surfaced over a year ago ranging from personal misconduct to not properly reporting a rape allegation against a player, but because of demands for his removal from fans sick of a losing record. 

This toxic culture pervades sports, and it’s likely only a fraction of abuses of power ever make it to the public. Yet, public and media pressure seem to be the only tool to pry open the eyes of blind owners and leagues. Until they reprimand men like Gruden and Riley before their wrongdoings become public, this culture will continue to thrive. And no movement against abuses of coach power can have real effect while it remains.