Ohio State’s women’s hockey coach has resigned in lieu of being fired for misconduct that included sexual harassment of his players. The university reportedly commenced investigating Nate Handrahan last November after receiving an anonymous complaint from a teacher or instructor that one of his players had shared in class the fact that he made sexually explicit comments to the team. In the course of investigating the complaint, the university received verifying testimony of other witnesses, who attested not only to his use of sexual language and innuendo (such as for example telling them in practice to “get horny for the puck”) but also his verbally abusive and intimidating style. (The university’s report also concluded that he had engaged in retaliation against his players as well, though the news account I read did not go into details on this.)
Earlier this year, Kris blogged about the dismissal of UNH’s women’s hockey coach over an incident in which he assaulted a player by pulling her to the bench by her shirt, causing her to fall. And I can’t help but ask about this case the same question Kris asked then: would this have happened in men’s sports? Notwithstanding prominent counterexamples, such as the dismissal of Rutgers men’s basketball coach for abusive conduct towards his players, there is still a lot of tolerance for, and even expectation of, an aggressive style among coaches of men’s teams. At the same time, cultural stereotypes about female athletes suggest that aggression is not appropriate for them. That puts coaches of women’s teams — men and women alike — in something of a double bind as they receive mixed messages from society (and possibly from the culture of their athletic department): be aggressive, to prove yourself as a coach. But don’t be aggressive towards female players, because women are different. The fact of this double-bind is not only dangerous for coaches, but for players as well. Not only because coaches may wrongly infer that abusive conduct is appropriate, but also because when the coach is dismissed for such misconduct, that in itself further diminishes the athletes’ experience by depriving them of continuity in coaching.
By no means do I point out this double standard to condone the actions of Coach Handrahan here. Nor do I suggest that Ohio State in particular is practicing a double standard. (In fact, Ohio State’s similar response to the band director situation last fall suggests that Ohio State is consistent when it comes to addressing sexual harassment in its programs.) But in a larger sense, this case helps illustrate the importance of being consistent across men’s and women’s programs when it comes to tolerating harassment, abuse, and bullying by coaches. Aggression that crosses the line into that territory should never be mistaken for a coach’s job requirement, regardless of the sex of the athletes he or she is coaching.