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Op-eds, Opinions

Heffernan: Gender bias in the critique of Coach Behn

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Feb. 24 Brown Daily Herald article announcing that the Brown Band will not perform at women’s basketball games to protest the head coach was chilling. Citing and reporting “allegations circulating” and “things we were hearing,” the band and The BDH threatened the career of a well-respected coach and educator.

Female collegiate coaches are among the most vulnerable population to be fired over claims of abuse and unfair treatment. Female coaches know that unlike their male colleagues, speculation is more than enough to remove them. One or two unhappy athletes can drown out all reason and the voices of legions of athletes who are happy with the coach’s performance.  Will the Brown Band hold male coaches to the same standard? Will the band scrutinize the language and tone of male football coaches and the happiness of male football players to determine if they will play at football games?

It’s clear that female coaches are held to a different standard than male coaches. Just Google Tracey Griesbaum, Robin Sparks, Sue Parker and Stacy Johnson-Klein — all successful female coaches who were fired in recent years. Their stories all have similar components, patterns and outcomes. Some unhappy players were cited, abuse allegations were leveled and coaching positions were revoked. Many allegations of abuse leveled at female coaches are thinly veiled sexist accusations that the coach is not appropriately nurturing and maternal. Years of exemplary evaluations and player testimonies were disregarded, all because “allegations circulated” and “things (were) heard.”

In 2017-18, I was part of a group of Brown coaches and faculty who gathered regularly over the course of a year to discuss teaching, coaching, learning and performance. Sarah Behn was one of the core members of that group. Throughout the year, nine faculty and nine coaches met to discuss instructive readings and our coaching/teaching practices. We also visited each other’s classrooms and practices. For example, a faculty member and I visited the women’s basketball team practices and sat behind the bench at games. My colleague and I took notes on the interactions between players and coaches and examined Coach Behn’s practice plans. Her plans, like those of all the coaches and faculty involved, were shared across the group, and everyone agreed that they were a model of effective teaching. Moreover, by incorporating persuasive communications, writing, data science, research and reflection, she and the other coaches in the program demonstrated how their coaching practices contributed to the goals of a liberal education.

At the gatherings for coaches and faculty, we acquired a deeper understanding of low- and high-stakes learning environments. Brown athletic teams are high-stakes, high-stress learning environments that require student-athletes to take initiative, exercise creativity and assume responsibility for how their decisions and actions affect a team’s outcomes. When they succeed, athletes improve their skills and self-confidence; when they fail, they learn from the subsequent feedback from coaches and other players and revise their strategy. Whether on a basketball court, in a classroom or laboratory, failure can be gut-wrenching and learning can be uncomfortable. Voices may be raised, demands made, outcomes expected and patience tested. However, these learning environments are often the most necessary and transformative.  Educators who can create valuable learning experiences in these high-stakes situations are rare and often the most memorable.

So, why is a well-respected coach being pilloried for being direct and corrective in her coaching style? Male coaches are rarely put under the same microscope for their interactions with players. I believe those who criticize Coach Behn have an unreasonable expectation that female coaches should adhere to gender-based norms of nurturing and maternal behaviors. They likely also expect us to subscribe to the trope that female coaches should create teams where players feel unconditionally supported while male coaches create teams that will equip their players to win. These are destructive, sexist stereotypes rooted in the belief that a woman’s primary charge in any setting is to be a domestic caregiver. Sarah Behn is an excellent coach and educator, but she’s not your mom.

Kerrissa Heffernan Ed.D serves as director of the Women’s Rugby Coaches and Referees Association and previously served as a Director of Engaged Sport at the Swearer Center for Public Service, Royce Fellowship Director and Brown University women’s rugby coach. She can be reached at kheffernan@uswrf.org. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Hoops Fan says:

    Bravo! Spot On! This needed to be said and it was beautifully said.

  2. Stay strong ex-players says:

    I really don’t understand. Since when was it okay to start invalidating experiences that aren’t yours? This op-ed is far from okay. Anyone would hate an abusive “‘mom”, as you think that’s how the girls saw Behn. My heart goes out to the players that spoke up. You did something that wasn’t easy and you deserve better than the comments you’re receiving. I praise your strength, whether or not I know your experience.

  3. Be Brave Young Women and speak your truth says:

    Unfortunately we do live in a society, a world, where there is gender biases. Point well taken, however, to bring that concept to the topic of Sarah Behn and the accusations made by the former players makes no sense. The fact that she is a woman does not shield her from these sorts of allegations that these young women have brought to the forefront. These young women are telling their story and no one has the the right to discount or invalidate their story because Coach Behn is a woman. No one, including this Rugby Coach pushing her position, has walked a step in these young women’s shoes as a player for Coach Behn. I am sure from looking at the profiles of the young women who quit over the past 4-5 years from this team come from reputable good homes, had good basketball profiles and did not come to this program looking for Coach Behn to be there mommy, because they already have good mothers. That’s insulting to the young women who quit and their mothers. Who do you think you are? What’s excellent about 10+ plus women quitting? What’s excellent about a 20-63 record? The common denominator for this factual record , no allegations, is Coach Behn. Is she responsible for anything or just exempt. Something is going wrong in this program to have this record over the past 6 years. Like with Urban Meyer, Bobby Knight… and other coaches she is not exempt from critical review. Young women were hurt while in her program and told their stories. How dare you, regardless of who you are and you perceived standing in the athletic world, invalidate these young women. HOW DARE YOU!!!!!! It’s like telling a woman that has been abused in a marriage not to get a divorce etc.

    • Impartial investigation says:

      I share your sentiments exactly. In fact, the University should assemble and conduct an investigation, without members of the athletic department to review and interview all current and former members of the team, coaches, etc., and then determine whether or not, Coach Behn should remain at Brown, or remain with supervision. It would seem that some of these allegations are the tip of the iceberg…

      • Wow!! 20-63 record, 3-25 in league, poorest defense, poorest offense, players quitting,. At the same time other programs in the league are rising. Then you add the fact that Brown is a very attractive school – great location, great academics, fun environment- and she still cannot win?
        She failed the school, her players, the league and just failed in basketball coaching. It takes a fool not to see that the program was going downhill. Alumni participation was horrendous because of how she approached the program. All those players who quit will hesitate to support a program under her tutelage.
        But the question remains: who hired her?
        Lastly, kudos to all the players who stood up. Many suffered under her.
        So to Mrs Hefferman, it’s obvious that you know nothing about coaching. About motivating a group of young women to excel. You see practice plans that led to lost games, you see unhappy bright young women who have ALWAYS excelled and you dare say it’s unfair treatment to the perpetrator?

  4. Former player who apparently was looking for a "mommy" ?? says:

    The jump from the article about the Brown University band and Behn to gender biases is EXTREMELY broad but, if that’s what you (Ms. Heffernan) want to talk about, then fine, let’s talk about it. We didn’t need a “mom”, we needed a coach. Let me reiterate to be sure you understand: A COACH
    Do you know what we got instead? An abusive, narcissistic and degrading “educator” (as you say). She didn’t empower us as women, she brought us down and if 10+ women quitting in the span of 6 years doesn’t show that to you, then I don’t think you have any grounds to be passing judgment on something you did not experience. Let me reiterate that again: Just because you saw her on the sidelines, doesn’t mean you know how she was in the locker room or behind closed doors, because I can tell you CONFIDENTLY, she is not the same woman that you think she is. So, do yourself a favor and keep your mouth shut about something you have no clue about.

    Have a great day Ms. Heffernan 🙂

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