Mark Mangino and the Psychology of Abuse by the Powerful

LAWRENCE, KS - SEPTEMBER 19:  Head coach Mark ...

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Whether or not you follow college football, you may have heard the news this week that Mark Mangino, head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, resigned amidst allegations of physical and verbal abuse by former and current players.  The allegations sparked an investigation by the university, during which more players came forward. 

Here are a few examples of their accusations from the ESPN website:

Former Kansas wide receiver Raymond Brown, a senior last season, said Mangino would often “say personal, hurtful, embarrassing things in front of people.”

Brown cited two examples. He said that once, his younger brother had been shot in the arm in St. Louis. Then came a game.   “I dropped a pass and [Mangino] was mad,” Brown said. “And I said, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’ The yelling didn’t bother me. But then he said, ‘Shut up!’ He said, ‘If you don’t shut up, I’m going to send you back to St. Louis so you can get shot with your homies.’ I was irate. I wanted to hurt him, to be honest with you.”

Brown said another teammate had confided in the team that his father was an alcoholic and the player dreamed of becoming a lawyer.  “One day, [Mangino] said in front of the entire team, ‘Are you going to be a lawyer or do you want to become an alcoholic like your dad?’ “ Brown said.

Former Kansas linebacker Joe Mortensen, who was a captain on last year’s team, said “[Mangino] was ruthless, to be honest with you.”

Mortensen said Mangino told him he had been a bad friend to someone who had died. And that Mangino would repeatedly bring up his public intoxication citation.

“He told me he’d send me back to Oakland where I could be drinking out of a brown paper bag,” Mortensen said. “He told me, ‘You were a s—- friend to someone I knew that passed away.’ He called me a bum. He showed me no respect. He told me he’d send me back to the ghetto.

This isn’t the first time Mangino has been reprimanded for “anger issues.”  Earlier in his career he became infamous for accosting referees at his son’s high school football games. But this is the first time that his players, who  seem to have been holding their pain back for a long time, have gone public.  College football players aren’t known for their emotional disclosure, so it’s certain that it took a lot for them to say anything to anyone about Mangino’s abusiveness.

They’re not alone.  According to a 2007 study of American workers, 37% (about 54 million people) are routinely bullied at work, defined as “sabotaged, yelled at, or belittled” by their bosses–and most of them grin and bear it. 

Some interesting research has been done recently to determine what’s really motivating abusive bosses (including coaches).  The answer, suggested by one study, is that a lack of perceived self-competence triggers aggression among the powerful. 

Power increases the degree to which people feel they must be competent, to fill the demands that come with a high position and to hold onto the position against would-be challengers. If someone in power doesn’t really think he or she is competent enough (or fears they might not be and thinks someone will eventually see through them) then any perceived threat could spark an aggressive reaction.  And for someone with an aggressive disposition, just about anything could be a perceived threat.

Mangino, like all college football coaches at big programs, was constantly under pressure to perform or else lose his job.  During his eight years as head coach at Kansas, he had big ups and downs, but was generally credited with turning the program around. Two years ago his team went 12-1 and he won the national coach-of-the-year award (and got a fat contract extension).  This year the team was barely above .500.  As a coach, the good times don’t last very long. 

None of that justifies Mangino’s behavior, but does provide context that fits in light of the research.  Take a guy with underlying rage issues, who, not incidentally, weighs 400 pounds, and put him in a position where the threat of losing his job pops up every year, and you have all the makings of a profoundly bad result. 

Kudos to the former and current Kansas players for coming forward.  Mark Mangino shouldn’t be coaching anyone anywhere until he undergoes a steady course of treatment with sincere intentions of overcoming his demons. Hopefully with his new-found free time, he’ll get it.   

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One thought on “Mark Mangino and the Psychology of Abuse by the Powerful

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