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4/1/19blog post

why we shouldn't ignore Tom Izzo's behavior

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo and player Aaron Henry
during the first-round game vs. Bradley.
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images/

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has an extraordinary record of basketball success and seems almost uniformly loved by his players.

However, he behaves in ways that would get the rest of us fired from our jobs.

Many of us are enjoying “March Madness,” the time of the year when basketball fans talk about bracketology and watch college hoops. In Michigan State’s game against Bradley, freshman forward Aaron Henry did not perform up to his coach's expectations.

Izzo screamed at Henry and pointed a finger in his face, and needed to be guided away from his player. Shortly thereafter, Izzo lunged at Henry and had to be restrained by other players. That’s right. A sixty-four-year-old experienced coach making millions of dollars had to be held by amateur college athletes from getting physical with a player.

Let’s not be self-righteous. I can’t begin to imagine the pressure of coaching basketball at that level.  Mistakes happen.  Izzo’s disgraceful behavior is concerning, but it’s what he said afterward that is truly offensive.

In the post-game press conference, Izzo could have simply apologized.  He could have said he was wrong and admitted that he lost control. Instead, he described the reaction of his critics as “ridiculous.” Izzo justified his behavior by asserting he was trying to hold his player “accountable.”  This is called blaming the victim for the abuser’s behavior.

Players quickly came to his defense.  One the team’s star players, Cassius Winston, declared that “coach is filled with passion and emotion and love. Those are the main things that make him as great as he is.”  This is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome when victims emotionally connect and defend their abusers.

Critics of Izzo were quickly put on the defensive, characterized as weak and reflecting today’s pampered and overindulged kids. Izzo’s defenders claim that this all about preparing kids for the real world, particularly in professional basketball. Successful people in all areas of life need to deal with harsh criticism.

Izzo is an embarrassment to anyone who coaches young people. His abusive behavior has nothing to do with holding a player accountable. There are a myriad of ways that the coach could have strongly corrected Henry without humiliating and physically threatening him. What’s particularly disturbing is how most in the sports community have defended Izzo’s behavior. They justify it by his outcome of successful teams and indoctrinated players.

Sports at all levels are incredibly beneficial for our kids, and coaches need lots of latitude to praise, punish, and even scream at kids at times. Izzo’s behavior is abusive and shouldn’t be tolerated, even if his victims don’t recognize it as such.