Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, the metal cleats chafed against the ruddy black pavement as the high school freshman baseball team lumbered toward the locker room. Cutting through the cleat clatter, off to the left, a voice full of piss and vinegar shouted, “If you’re too damn scared to do it right, I’ll find somebody else to play there and you can watch.” The voice’s owner — the high school baseball program’s head coach — turned away from the confrontation and swung his plump leg, punting a five-gallon plastic bucket of baseballs. “Somebody better pick those up,” he added, pacing in a circle of frustration. The commotion came from the main baseball field where the varsity team practiced (when they weren’t picking up loose baseballs). Unsatisfied by the athlete’s adjustments, the coach called for an immediate end to the team drill and told an assistant coach to join him in cranking ground balls at the players, who, in turn, fielded or otherwise threw their bodies in front of the baseballs to stop them. For the players who were unlucky enough to have a set of red laces hop past them, verbal insults about their skills and general manliness followed as they chased yet another loose ball.
The varsity coach, who has run my alma mater high school’s baseball program for 19 seasons, is known for these outbursts as much as the sun is known for coming up every day (extreme polar regions excluded). On his field, yelling is as common as the satisfying crack of a bat hitting a ball. While I witnessed an outburst for the first time as a player in my high school’s baseball program that day, I would eventually see the same man throw baseball bats, hats, balls, gloves, and other equipment — not to mention insults — in order to express his frustration and intimidate players into upholding his self-imposed system of rules. Similar to a home where parents fight, our freshman coach advised us on that first occasion to mind our own business as our fellow student athlete had a new asshole installed by the head coach. That’s what we had to look forward to as the youngest members of the baseball program. We accepted it because, among other reasons, the program dominated regionally — in the eight last seasons, from 2010-2018, the team won 181 games and lost 50, giving them a .784 winning percentage. They also finished as runners up for Ohio’s Division I state title in 2018. Through his system of discipline and fundamentals, the coach has developed a regional reputation for not only his explosive outbursts but also winning, which is likely one reason why he has the leeway to use power as he does.
When you come from rural-ish Ohio, or suburban anywhere, getting into the big state school for college is a big deal. In my experience, though, many high schoolers, especially guys, care more day-to-day about sports than long-term academic achievement. They play sports, talk about sports, form friend groups through sports, and even shape their collegiate ambitions with sports. They’re obsessed. And when so many people strive to achieve through one channel there’s bound to be serious competition. That competition plays out in front of decision-makers, which, in this case, means coaches. Thus, a dynamic is born where coaches hold power and rule over fiefdoms and that while technically only measure the size of their respective sports fields, extend far beyond those confines. Because of their obsession with sports, student athletes from these communities conform to systems that allow coaches to control many other parts of students’ lives. Coaches establish rituals (our baseball team was familiar with the fingertip pushup) and set their own rules and expectations (“show up 10 minutes early or you’re late,” and “keep your face cleanly shaven and your hair above your ears,” to name a few). Coaches also mete out their own punishments and rarely face consequences when they overstep. The love of sport can run so deeply that these terms sound manageable, even desirable, as they allow players to illustrate their dedication. That was the case for me, at least. Complicating things, as an adolescent, I developed a chip on my shoulder for fairness, especially when low-level authority figures acted unfairly (I still believe deeply in meritocracy — as long as I’m winning). Clearly, trouble lay ahead. But just how much trouble and what types, I couldn’t have told you. I can tell you now, though.
I came to understand that the local “sports are life” culture had sown seeds that enabled a twisted system, crooked power dynamics, and abusive coaches to flourish — so much so that I could not fight it. There were no other players to join in pushing back or authorities willing to rectify the system or its abusers. Eventually, I’d be left with one option: quit the team. When society creates deep-rooted systems that enable (and even incentivize) leaders to abuse their powers, we’re forced to either suffer or walk away from the systems.
My clash with this local sports institution had already erupted when I received a note from the school’s office one day while I sat in class. The note said to see the head coach in his office at the middle school, right next to the high school, where he taught gym. As a junior, with baseball tryouts underway, I grabbed my books with jittery hands and walked to his office to the tempo of butterflies fist-fighting in my stomach.
Part 1: Head Games
I breezed past the brightly lit trophy case that greets anyone using the main entrance to the middle school; a reminder for visitors that, “sports are how we measure success,” and for coaches, that, “you’re expected to win.” At the end of the trophy case, I turned right and dipped into the gym’s entrance, then turned down a hallway towards the boy’s locker room and the coach’s office. The door was closed. My hand, already wadded into a fist, knuckles formed, knocked on the door. “Yeah?” a muffled but familiar voice responded. I pushed the door open and stepped from the dark hallway into the 8-foot-by-8-foot office bathed in fluorescent light. An assistant coach, known among the team for his henchman-like role, performing undesirable duties — no doubt to prove his commitment to the program and keep himself in the running for head coach — sat alone and offered me a seat (I felt less nervous seeing he lacked a lap cat, the international sign of intent and ability to do harm).
I side stepped my way to a worn chair that brought the room’s interrogation vibe together, and the assistant coach eased into the looming conversation with a collegial tone and some questions about my day. Untouched by the synopsis of my lunch (which was decidedly fantastic — Mom had packed Doritos AND a bologna sandwich, which meant I could smash the former and put them on the latter), he got down to business, “Since tryouts have started, we (he said notably by himself) wanted to talk about your chances of making the team this year.” My teenaged poker face cracked immediately; concern radiated from my raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead. I shook my head in disbelief as the words rattled through my ear holes and settled in my stomach (next to the Bologna-Dorito Sandwich™). The coach built his case with a vague description of the coaching staff’s vision for the team and what kind of players would help them realize that vision. I pressed, “What is it about my game that isn’t good enough?” The coach, unprepared for that kind of direct question from a kid who still had acne, stumbled through a non-answer response. Presumably, he sensed his grip loosening on the situation and shifted to interrogating me, “Why should we believe you’ll bring a different attitude to the team this year?” With that, I realized what this was: a shot across the bow, an elaborate threat meant to coax me into being a more obedient player. “You’ve never seen me with my back against a wall,” I said.
The meeting planted a seed of self-doubt in my mind but I was resolved to reassert my worth. At the remaining tryout sessions, I performed every motion with as much intent and focus as I could. When I brought that intensity to warm up drills on one of the last days, the JV coach, who I had played for the previous season, strolled over to me and said, “Loosen up.” I tilted my head to the side and looked at him, waiting for more. “You’re not going to get cut.” He must have seen the effect the assistant coach’s threat had on me and his conscience got the better of him. He couldn’t remain complicit with their charade and exposed a crack in their armor. And he was right. I didn’t get cut. In fact, I earned a starting varsity spot during our preseason games.
But the coaching staff had made its goal clear—stoke fear in me. I was clearly getting in the way of their job coaching an obedient and trusting team, and I had emerged as a threat to their order (or at least the player equivalent of a cowlick in their hair). As longtime wielders of authority, they understood that once consolidated, their power had to be asserted continually or they risked losing fear as a motivator. I had crossed them on plenty of occasions by the time of this shakedown, and I had learned through experience that one of their favorite mechanisms for coercing obedience was making an example of misbehaving players — a tactic the entire community accepted based on the lack of pushback from parents or administrators who were fully aware of the coach’s disciplinary measures. My pattern of disrespect drove them to such excessive tactics but one display of disobedience from the previous season (my sophomore year) comes to mind as the most troublesome.
Part 2: “He’s got some running to do”
Each footstep landed with a crunch, punctuating the soft swishing of grass beneath my cleats. I looked to my right, at my teammates taking the field against a team from Cincinnati. I had been ordered to “run poles” instead of playing in the game, which meant I was to run from the foul pole in left field to the foul pole in right field, back and forth, tracing the outer arc of the baseball field. I could feel my teammates and their parents, who had settled into the bleachers (or yard chairs depending on their preference for back support and cup holders), looking out at me. It felt similarly to how I imagine townspeople would have knowingly pitied someone punished by time in the stocks. Meanwhile, the other team and anyone else at the ball field that day watched curiously as I looped between foul poles instead of joining my team in the field or in the dugout. This is how the coaching staff made an example of players who disobeyed them. And all for a basic misunderstanding.
The previous night, when our team’s bus pulled up to the hotel and room assignments were called out, an assistant coach yelled out “DeThomas” twice — once for my room assignment and once for my twin brother’s. The problem was that they didn’t specify which “DeThomas” was to go in which room, and one “DeThomas” was assigned to a room with our best friends while the other was supposed to bunk with an older group of guys with which we were both far less close. Neither of us would relent so we both chose the room with our friends. Later that night, an assistant coach checked to make sure each player was where he was supposed to be — at least one DeThomas was out of place. That DeThomas was, to my surprise, me. The assistant coach watched as I packed my things, and then he escorted me to the other room, where he told me I’d be punished the following day. That was until another knock hammered on the door twenty minutes later. The head coach stood in the hallway. He heard about my insurrection and showed up ready to share his frustration. He pulled me into the hallway, both of us in pajamas. He bounced from one leading question to another, “You think you know better than me? You think you can just ignore whatever I say?” Just as he was about to reach boiling point, with a reddening face and spit goo forming on the corners of his mouth, he left me (and the entire hallway of other hotel guests) with a threat of impending discipline the next day.
Our bus shot through the rainy and green springtime in the Southern Ohio suburbs the next morning, when I was summoned to the front of the bus, where the coaches sat. I pulled out my headphones, which pumped out angry rap music (the almost exclusive preference of our blindingly white team) and trudged to the alter on which my ego was about to be sacrificed. Without as much as a good morning, the head coach barked, “You think you run this team? You think you make the decisions? You think you know better than me? I’ll tell you what I know — you’re not playing today.” I could only imagine the story he must have told himself to get that visibly worked up — again — twelve hours after the infraction happened. His pink, fleshy face reddened again, as if he had just re-learned about the incident, pushing fresh venom into his veins. That’s when he turned to the JV coach and said, “Coach, take Anthony out of your lineup. He’s got some running to do and won’t be able to make the game.” With that, his venom had transferred to my veins, causing an acidic heat to settle in my stomach and my temples to throb.
After a couple innings of running behind the outfield fence, the umpire asked that I stop running during game play — I distracted from the gameplay — so my coaches transferred me to a green patch of grass, away from the field. After a couple more innings, I faced a few more rhetorical questions from the head coach, which inquired if I thought I’d decide to do his job and play coach again. I said “No.” But I like to imagine what would have happened if I had said yes.
Most remarkable of all was the way the coach asserted his authority by encroaching on our dignity as players and vain young men. His goal seemed to be to gnaw at your ego and make you feel disrespected; to make you question your self-worth enough to seek his approval instead of relying on your own. A system that incentivizes coaches to play mental games is one thing, but a system that allows for coaches to express frustration physically on players, as I experienced next, is another.
Part 3: “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical”
Confusion and outrage erupted on the baseball field, which my varsity teammates and I watched from the dugout. Maybe the umpire had blown a call or perhaps our head coach had been ejected? Whatever the event, a JV team member ran up to the field’s fence and asked me through the links what was happening. Seconds into an explanation and without any warning, a pair of hands came for my jersey, gripped the detergent and dirt-scented material and ripped me away from the fence. Just as quickly, the hands shoved me away, sending me skittering across the cement-floored dugout (picture someone who sucks at ice skating trying to ice skate). My teammates looked on in shock. The hands belonged to the same assistant coach who had threatened to cut me earlier in the season. Since making the varsity team, I fell under his direct coaching.
Not all displays of power are long, drawn-out affairs. Sometimes the fact that the event happened at all is the real illustration of power. The assistant coach crossed a line most high school coaches wouldn’t cross with just a quick shove. Compounding the situation, he told me after the game that the team had a rule of not speaking to anyone who wasn’t on the field and tried to justify his actions in the event I felt like telling someone. But there were no repercussions for the coach because neither I nor my teammates told anyone. We didn’t have anything to tell. This is how life on this team and in the community worked. The coaches had overstepped so many times that we came to expect it — we viewed it as “just another blow up.” The administrators allowed the coaches to build their kingdoms and write the laws; as long as the winning continued, the ignorance could too.
That’s a real measure of a messed-up institution, isn’t it? The ability to get away with abuses of authority because victims acclimate to the power trips and come to expect them, which perpetuates the behavior and creates a self-sustaining system.
One thing is for sure: I was discouraged to a point where what happened next seemed inevitable.
Part 4: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it”
“You pissed your pants out there,” the head coach hissed at me. “You went out there and you pissed your pants…pathetic,” he continued, shaking his head. He must have felt as embarrassed by my pitching performance as I did. I stared down, frustrated for not having performed how I knew I could. But he didn’t stop. He kept muttering until his displeasure forced his volume high enough so that the whole dugout could hear his insults. Something inside me snapped like a rubber band stretched beyond its limits. “I didn’t pee my pants,” I responded, (as evidenced by my dry pants…factually, I was correct).
To understand the significance of that moment, it helps to know that the kids who had made it this far on the team did so because they didn’t respond (i.e. “talk back”) in these situations (our implicit contract as players included a consent clause that traded our right to stand up for ourselves for gallon buckets of bubble gum and sunflower seeds). The coaches expected players to accept the discipline. I couldn’t anymore.
The coach’s head would have exploded had a torrent of words, bolstered by his voice’s maximum volume, not ripped from his mouth. He charged across the dugout towards me, screaming so loudly that play on the field stopped. Players from both teams looked into the dugout, unable to look away from the volcanic discharge. His eyes bulged, his voice raised, and spit coated his words.
“If a person explodes with anger at you, you must remind yourself that it is not exclusively directed at you — do not be so vain. The cause is much larger, goes way back in time, involves dozens of prior experiences.”
-Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
(easy for Robert Greene to say…)
With my feet planted tenuously to the ground, I weathered a verbal storm unlike any I had before. To make matters worse, our team lost badly that day, and a current of tension and frustration coursed through the dugout. As soon as the game ended and our teams shook hands, the beginning of the end…began. The whole team faced a truncated yell-storm from the head coach before being sent to run poles. After his instructions, the coach added, “Everyone get out there now except for 2,” addressing me by my number instead of my name. Here came Round 2 of the one-sided conflict (some fans had bought popcorn after the game, likely in the hopes of this very spectacle).
The head coach and I stood on opposite sides of the dugout. But instead of coming out swinging, his mood changed. He shuffled from his corner and threw a couple exploratory verbal jabs but his bluster and bite vanished. Whether he was fatigued from his previous episodes or just didn’t see the point in keeping it up, I can’t say. To be sure, I was surprised when he eventually said, “I just want to see that eye of the tiger in you.” (I got past the hokey word choice, and so can you). I understood that as an old-school, hard-nosed guy, the head coach wanted to develop in his players the same chip-on-your-shoulder attitude that he went through his athletic career with. His harshness simply created the adversity he wanted us to master. However, I had already accepted the idea that this was to be my last game.
The next day, I walked into the locker room for practice but instead of putting on my gear, I put it into my bag and returned the equipment to the head coach, telling him I was done. “Okay, Anthony,” he replied. My brother joined me in returning his equipment and quit in solidarity. Each coach, unmoved, reacted with a stoic expression.
Part 5: It ain’t over ’til it’s over…wait, yeah, it’s over
Having enjoyed watching my brother and me play baseball since we were four (though I doubt tee-ball was fun for anyone to watch), my dad had the most active response to our decision to quit. He wrote a letter listing the grievances he saw as a father of two players in the program and as a tax payer in the school district. He then circulated the letter to everyone from the head coach himself to the athletic director’s office and the super intendant of the school district. Still, nothing came of it.
Here was a culture that fetishized sports to a point where it had created systems that enabled coaches to assert power and influence well beyond their fields of play. When you’re a part of a system like that, changing the cast of coaches is merely a temporary reset. The deep rooted, long-established systems that create the power and dole it out (without boundaries) to third-rate adults, are the source of the problem. And if that’s what our seemingly humble communities allow, why are we all so surprised by the even more significant abuses of power we see at national and international levels? At least in this case I could quit and walk away.