Gordon Monson: Abusive coaches need to be stopped — and we can tell them exactly where

Utah Tech’s investigation into women’s basketball coach JD Gustin is an opportunity to clearly define the line between tough coaching and abuse.

(Joe Buglewicz | The New York Times) Members of the then-Dixie State (now Utah Tech) Trailblazers during a practice in St. George on April 1, 2021. JD Gustin, head coach of the Utah Tech womens' basketball team, is under investigation after current and former players made allegations of misconduct.

Abusive coaching by abusive coaches has existed since competitive sports began.

When a coach rules with impunity, with anger, with rage, with bullying, with clenched fists over a team, over individual players, instilling in them anxiety and fear, a few extra games might be won. Ultimately, though, nobody really wins, not over the long haul.

I’ve seen this happen on too many occasions, some hidden away in the bushes, some eventually highlighted on big stages.

I’m now seeing what I hope is a shift: The lines between what is acceptable and what is not in coaching are being redrawn, hopefully more brightly and on the side of protecting the vulnerable.

This week, I read the allegations against Utah Tech women’s basketball coach JD Gustin. A dozen current and former players from Gustin’s program spoke to The Tribune’s Eric Walden. All but one of those players said Gustin, in their opinion, crossed lines at different times, going beyond so-called “tough” coaching, into personal disparagement and verbal abuse.

Some players said they suffered to the point of dreading coming to practices, some said they were kicked off the team, some said they left on their own because they couldn’t bear what they considered his emotional outbursts anymore.

Similar allegations have been made in recent weeks by former University of Utah gymnasts, who claim head coach Tom Farden verbally degraded, threw objects around the gym or toward athletes in anger, and threatened to take scholarships away for performance.

Both Utah Tech and the U. hired independent firms to investigate the claims. The U.’s investigation found Farden “caused some student-athletes to feel ‘increased fear of failure’ and pressure to retain athletics scholarships” but that he did not engage in “any severe, pervasive or egregious” acts of abuse as defined by the SafeSport Code and NCAA regulations.

A natural inclination for some is to draw conclusions that players these days are too coddled, too soft, too entitled, that they can’t handle good, hard mentoring from a coach who really has their and his team’s best interests at heart.

But, in my experience covering scores of coaches long before Gustin and Tom Farden were even hired for their jobs, many so-called “tough” coaches are hypocrites. They demand fierce loyalty and strict discipline from their players while requiring so little of it from themselves. They lack propriety and, even more, self-control. They build themselves up as overseers, as all powerful, and insist that their players conform to their whims and wishes, come what may. They rationalize that they want their players to fear them more than they fear whatever, whoever opposes them.

Utah Tech’s code of conduct says the school “will not tolerate” obscene language from student-athletes. It forbids hazing by student-athletes, which includes an athlete being “yelled at, cursed or sworn at, humiliated, ridiculed, or physically or psychologically abused.”

Gustin once described his athletes’ deficiencies as “disgusting” and “pathetic” during a radio interview. In private, some of Gustin’s players claim, he’s repeatedly used intimidation on them, screamed f-bombs and called at least one of them the c-word.

Picture that happening in any other setting, say, at a bank or a business office or in a sales meeting.

They claim he’s thrown players out of practice for no rational reason, threatened to pull their scholarships, and run a player off for reporting him and his behavior to Utah Tech administrators.

If true, is that good, tough coaching?

It is time to make sure the lines are clearly drawn for coaches and how they treat their athletes — at Utah Tech and elsewhere.

In the realm of athletics, abuse of power can break athletes down to a state of belittlement and manipulation, a state of anxiety and acquiescence and, in severe cases, depression. It can steal away the thrill of playing a game. It can ruin any sport played at any level.

Some coaches know that full well, using control tactics to build themselves up while tearing at least some of their players down. Some either do not grasp it or do not care.

There are more than a few examples of coaches who take their antics too far. I covered Rick Majerus. I’ve seen the rise and fall of Urban Meyer.

Even with greater awareness of the importance of mental health, there are some coaches who still push their dictatorial methods to the limit and beyond, presuming that it’s their way or the highway, regardless of whether their way is the right way or a downright idiotic way.

Players should be vigilant and unafraid to speak up when they experience such verbal and emotional abuse. But some are afraid.

They are afraid they won’t be listened to, won’t be taken seriously. Three different athletes told The Tribune they spoke with Utah Tech officials, addressing concerns about Gustin’s behavior but said they saw no action taken to protect athletes.

If that is the case, Utah Tech’s response is difficult to justify. All programs need to look into any allegations brought forward and take them seriously.

Let’s at least have the conversation now.

I read a treatise once written by a concerned parent who hoped his two daughters, both athletes, would find themselves fortunate enough to be guided and taught by a coach who would help them become confident, well-adjusted, self-assured individuals, people who could achieve what they set their minds to do. And, most importantly, that those daughters would have the “self-respect and courage to speak up, take care of themselves and not allow themselves to be abused in any situation.

“What is particularly disturbing to me about coach abuse,” the parent wrote, “is the insidious message it communicates to girls and young women: ‘I have the power over you. I can say and do whatever I want, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about this.’”

I get it. We all get it. This is college sports, not cotillion. There are times when a coach has reason to get after his or her players, to motivate them with urgency and aggression.

Ridiculous and reprehensible is a coach who not only thinks he’s empowered to the point of abuse, but who, in fact, is empowered by a lack of policy or oversight at a state university or anywhere else.

Every school and organization needs to put an end to such behavior, needs to take action against a coach, any coach, all coaches, who, despite what they believe, are not emperors. These coaches, rather, are small, insecure people who have used their position to mistreat athletes in a way that is inexcusable.