Friday, January 28, 2011

The Athletic Morality of Quitting

Is one of the worst insults one athlete can fling at another. Quitting, giving up, strikes at the core of athletic ethics. To excel, to get better, to bring out the best in one’s team requires an athlete try his or her hardest at all times. An ethic of seeking excellence and competition calls for trying harder in face of setbacks and adversity. Setbacks involve learning from them and working to correct and get better.  Even when an athlete is losing, the ethic requires the individual keep trying to honor the game, their mates and the integrity of the sport. We always commend teams that keep “playing hard” even when far behind.

Giving up and quitting are so important that opponents may seek to break a competitor’s spirit and effort.  You can tell when a team loses heart and quits on itself and the game. A team fails when it loses the motivation and will to play to its highest level of energy. Once a team does not maintain its focused attention on excellence, its own talent and skill will not help it against a determined adversary, even one with lesser talent. It is pretty clear when a coach loses a team or when the team cohesion falls apart; we can see it on the field or in practice.

The excoriation heaped on Jay Cutler for leaving the NFC championship game with an injured knee reflects moral outrage from pro players at two levels. First, it refers back to the Achilles ideal, that I have discussed, that a player should risk health and life for glory. But second, at a deeper level, it expresses moral indignation at believing, justified or not, that Cutler quit.

Why is quitting such a damning ethical indictment in sports? The commitment an athlete makes to master a sport lies at the heart of a competitive ethic of excellence. Anyone who achieves success in sports of life knows that talent matters for little unless allied with a focused work ethic and character that leads an athlete to work and practice to get better and bring that relentless work to performance.

Trying your best is no guarantee of success or achievement. As Captain Picard said to Data “sometime you can do everything right and still lose.” But an athlete can control attitude and effort. This means the athlete decides and gives the time, energy and effort to learn, master and compete.

Trying your hardest means working not just in the game but also in working out in the off-season and preparation for competition. Trying grows from mental and emotional effort and manifests in physical and skill growth. When a coach says a player is mentally tough, the coach is referring to that constellation of emotional, cognitive and executive functions that make up character. Trying and giving maximum effort involves an act of decision and will. Athletes judge themselves and others by this because it is the one area totally under the control of the athlete.

This effort and attention reveal character. Attention is the most precious of human gifts because our attention organizes our energy and skill development. Not trying will mean that an athlete of immense talent will not develop it and become less of an athlete and competitor than they could be. They may still be good because of talent, but not as good as they could be. They fail in the moral endeavor of self-development and attainment of excellence. They also fail in the cooperative endeavor of the team pushing and helping each other become better athletes and better team. To quit on oneself means quitting on one’s team.

Regardless of the truth of what happened to Cutler, the anger players expressed has less to do with Cutler and more to a defense of a code. At the core of the code lies effort and commitment that condemns quitting as a cardinal sin in sports ethics.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

NCAA Mocks its Values in Early Offer Decision Vote

In the cascade of NCAA legislation from the last meeting, one “minor” vote stands out. The NCAA Legislative Council voted to not  prohibit coaches from offering athletic scholarships until junior year of high school. So colleges and universities can continue to offer full scholarships to 13 year olds, eighth graders or high school freshmen.

This decision did not come from the media NCAA bogeyman like eligibility or enforcement bureaucracies.

No this decision came after due deliberation of the NCAA Legislative Council. The Council represents all NCAA conferences and makes the final judgment on legislative matters. This legislation was five years in gestating and had the strong support of the NCAA Recruiting and Academic Cabinets.

The issue seems minor to the media obsessed with enforcement or BCS issues, but it strikes at the core of the NCAA claim to be about STUDENT athletes. For the last decade college coaches have offered scholarships at younger and younger ages. I have written about the many problems for students, parents and coaches, but it continues. Right now most Olympic teams have long finished their junior recruiting and are already making offers to sophomores and often freshmen.

In basketball offers are routinely extended to eighth graders. Even football which had largely avoided this corruption of ideals, now moves towards offering scholarships to grade school behemoths or quarterback phenoms.

Why is this a problem? Simple.  We have no real ability to predict the character or academic potential of a 13 year or even 14 year old. Universities have no business offering full cost college scholarships to kids who have no high school grades or may have one year of high school grades.

The early offers ridicule the pretense to take the STUDENT in student-athlete seriously. With no real ability to predict academic performance and no great sense of athletic performance, the NCAA sanctions a shallow, competition driven practice.

Even though the academic and recruiting wings of the NCAA strongly supported this approach, the athletic directors and some powerful coaches killed it at the conference votes. Most don’t want change because the big schools benefit in the early recruiting game and the smaller ones see a chance to benefit from early mistakes and late blossoming or local product commits.

The pretend reason for the opposition from athletic directors and coaches is that it would be hard to enforce. The coaches and directors claim to worry about false reports made against them or about being held accountable to secret offers they do make. This is a sham.  After a year or two of transition the media and culture of coaching will adapt. There will be mistakes, but the AD and coaches don’t want change because they have now accommodated and are benefitting from the practice.

Five years ago most coaches hated making offers to children and would tell you. They knew it made no sense to extend offers to eighth graders and freshmen. They knew that this increases risk for athletic talent and growth, but also for academic talent. But now they have lived with the wrong of it, and they can rationalize it. “We help them earlier. We guide them for grades. We end the rat race sooner.” It goes on and on but it teaches us that good people will accommodate themselves to bad systems and then rationalize it away.

So at a formal vote of the Legislative Council worried more about enforcement liability and keeping their recruiting advantages than living up to their professed values. Congratulations NCAA on living up to your ideals.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hanging at the BCS

More or less by plan, I spent the last four days in Phoenix at the BCS shebang; a national   championship football game, a real wallapalooza,  also took place. I ended up there with my sister as a member of the PAC-10 Council and found myself rooting for Oregon, of all things, in PAC-10 solidarity. My sister knows infinitely more about football then I do so it was a pleasure to understand what was going on rather than just watching the pretty patterns and missing ninety percent of the skill and chessplaying on the field.  We had a great time enjoying the game and spectacle.

The Game

A great college football game! The bigger, faster and more talented team won, but only in the last two seconds. Both teams played offenses that no professional football team would dare play. Half the receivers and all the quarterbacks would be carted of the field, and several the the big guys would have heart attacks from exertion in a pro game. Auburn turned all the tables when it opened for three quarters and played the high powered ultra-fast Oregon offense only with better personnel. Hats off to the team for morphing its crisp college offense into the ultra-max to match the Oregon game. The average play got off in 9 to 15 seconds. Auburn felt in control most of the game but could not break the undermanned Oregon defense. I mean Cam Newton outsized three of the four defensive linemen. Meanwhile Oregon dealt with the ultra-offense by shuttling in hockey line substitution patterns. We were all surprised at the end to see that Oregon had actually amassed 400 plus yards mainly in the air, but the vaunted Ducks left alot of points on the field with overthrown passes and horrendous penalties one leading to touchback and another pulling them beyond field goal range, others giving Auburn third and fourth chances.

But Oregon was Oregon and pulled out two, yes two, two point conversions. They added one fake punt pass to add to their touchback. The weird half time score of 16-11 must have driven the bookies crazy. Auburn defense manhandled the the Oregon offensive line, and the Oregon QB spent the whole day under pressure while Oregon's critical running game disappeared under a mass of large, fast and smart defenders. Auburn scored and seemed set to score again and again, but could never quite put it away with bad passes on fourth down in the end zone, interceptions, and very uneven offense. Both teams slipped and struggled with an unforgivable sodden field.

Somehow Oregon, clearly outmatched, hung in there and launched a last minute drive and scored on shovel pass and then topped it with a leaping dunk catch for a two point conversion. Game, set, but not match. Auburn had three minutes, plenty of time for either offense. A strange but very heady carry by their freshman running back lead to a freakish gain after it looked like he had been stopped, but neither his knees nor wrist  never touched the ground, and he sliced forward for 37  yards. Auburn blew forward again and kicked a field goal from the one foot mark as the clock expired. Everyone was exhausted from the game and there was no gloating, just a huge recognition, even from the  muted SEC chants, that people had witnessed one hell of a college football game. The tension never let up, ever, and it certainly felt better than the last four championships.


The game served as the main course after three days of party. I am painfully aware of the corporate superstructure of the event and the logos and Tostitos pervade the place, but the structure itself supports a remarkable celebration that I participated in. It's kind of like the holidays, you just eat, and hang and watch TV then eat some more. The plan seemed to be that we all end up stuffed with every kind of Tostitos possible including their new "artisanal" flavors. Every table had bags of myriad Tostitos  along with amazingly tasty and horrendously unhealthy Tostito dips.Notice that I am capitalizing the corporate name out of good grammar, not corporate sponsorship.

"Sightings" occupied the time between eating and hanging. The real stars at events like these are not the Conference Commissioners or the University Presidents and certainly not the Athletic Directors. Unless you were infamous like Cam Newton, it wasn't even the players. No people whispered about  "Lee sighting" or maybe  "Kirk sighting" or an "Saban Sighting." People prowled the banquets and parties makings lists of how many stars, I mean ESPN commentators" they saw.

You got a true sense of the real secret world government Sara Palin and others worry about when a cavalcade of very black and I presume armored ESPN Escalades purred up to the Phoenician hotel. Guys in black suits with sunglasses stood by their black Escalades gleaming in the Phoenix sun muttering to the black hook ups in  their ears. Through the opaque glass you might glimpse shadows of Erin Andrews, Jon Gruden or Brent Musburger.

The spectacle thrives on color and score several strong style points for tradition. Auburn's band marched crisp and accurate wehrmacht style.   13 xylophones and twirlers twirling white rifles augmented the flawless precision. Their blue and orange team uniforms glistened clean and classic. After ESPN nattered for two weeks about what Oregon might wear (think what that tells us about ESPN), the Ducks ran around in glow worm shoes and carbon or graphic or something pants while their band lumbered along with very large bright yellow bibs. Auburn looked great. For those who noticed, Auburn's cheerleaders wore demure orange dress while Oregon's wore newly designed day glow bikinis.

Outside the stadium looked vaguely  like an 1950's flying saucer, and most, but not all,  of us got the irony of two real universities playng in the non-university University of Phoenix stadium.  Inside, however, the stadium erupted with endless noise and cheers and divided into orange and yellow. Again pure college ball. Colors matter. Colors defined the tribes gathered for the battle, and the whole stadium reflected the  two dominate colors: orange and yellow.

I knew this but forgot and wore a really cool peach shirt that morning.  A PAC-10 colleague gently pointed out that "peach" faded into the orange color spectrum and I probably should not be wearing it. So I doused myself in purple to flaunt my UW affiliation and prove, since it is hard to deal with the  the nouveau riche Ducks, to support PAC-10 solidarity.  I admit the overweening SEC presence did make it easier to do. I sat in the Duck section and counted at least six different yellows; butter, daffodil, bright sun, day glow yellow, day glow yellow/green puke and some others. That sort of captured Oregon; the Auburn side, like their band, wore one official orange, just one.

Waltzing around the stadium with roof closed, you could feel the vibrations, although not like the Seattle Seahawks last week who registered about 2 on the Richter scale, really, the earthquake monitors around the Puget Sound picked it up! Everywhere you looked people walked around in blue and orange striped overalls, war eagle fringed painted faces, tiger tails spouting from orange pants. A pair of green/day glow painted guys wearing green and yellow harlequin outfits took each others pictures while WAR DUCK placards competed with WAR EAGLE cheers ( you have to remember Auburn is the Tigers but their call is the WAR EAGLE, it is a bit confusing but a marketing bonanza). Frat guys wearing yellow togas or blue Togas jeered at each other. Some fans wore "In Chip We Trust" shirts.

I realized again and again how much fun these spectacles engender. I also realized how much we use sports to   call forth communal and tribal loyalties. In some areas of the country parents have been known to refuse to pay tuition if their children defect to a rival school rather than the family heirloom school. Inherited blood loyalties as well as adopted loyalties  manifest themselves in the sports competition. The colors, perceptions, sense of unity (even the belief that a Husky could root for a Duck, I avoided several awkward bathroom confrontations from yellow and green clad folks insulted by my purpose by loudly proclaiming "PAC-10" and the bathroom took up the chant, "PAC-10, PAC-10," thankfully. Bathrooms do not make good confrontation grounds. Speaking of which I believe that University of Phoenix Stadium is the only sport venue I have ever attended where the men's bathroom lines were longer, I mean 2 to 3x longer than the women's lines? Beer, college or is there something in the air?

While I paced myself and sat at every TV timeout, we stood, hollered and watched for the entire game. My sister has promised to hide the photo of me wearing a day glow pom pom as a wig, but for just a moment, we could all enjoy the sport, the excellence and the loyalties that sport competition permits.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Problem with a Game Manager

“All they need is a game manager.

I’ve head this comment often these days from  analysts as they discuss NFL or NCAA quarterbacks. The term game manager tells us way too much about a coaching philosophy that values game managers.

In my academic field people often distinguish between leaders and managers. I do not agree with the distinction, but let’s assume the coaches do. A manager works under terms of predictability and implements  directives deploying existing resources. You expect reliability and consistency from managers. The manager, unlike a leader, implements rather than creates. To be a good manager, you focus upon judgment, but very constrained judgment within a system of limited options.  Making a QB a game manager does several things:

1)            The plan matters more than the player. The QB under this rubric executes a plan that the coach conceives. In a sense this resembles baseball's VORP measure, it assumes a  minimal quarterback at league average with no real value above replacement. So the plan matters more than the player.
2)            This demonstrates a very risk averse approach where a coach/team emphasize minimizing mistakes and sticking with the plan. It reifies limits in the team. 
3)            It instantiates the utter dominance of the coach and the coach’s mind—the plan—over the talent or status of the QB or team for that matter. The QB reduces to an automaton, a certain coach’s dream. The QB's discretion exists but within a narrow universe of calls.

Granted all teams approach games with a plan based upon scouting the other team’s tendencies and built upon one’s own team’s strengths and weaknesses. As Dwight Eisenhower reminded us, “plan, but don’t trust the plan.” A good plan serves as a frame to guide and probe and then adapt to what the other side throws at you. A game manager approach minimizes the guide and maximizes the plan is the plan, a soviet approach to play.

The problem with game manager approach to football lies in the rigidity and self-imposed limits it puts on the QB, the team and even the coach. The coach has defined as out of range an array of tactics and strategies for the QB and team. Having a game manager philosophy narrows the job of the opposing defense because they know what not to expect and can concentrate upon the limited repertoire of the game manager.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, and game managers are not trained to overcome adversity or surprise. Game managed team do not come back when down. A game managed team will struggle facing new alignments or surprises. The plan dominates the mind set and schemes, but plan driven teams leave very little room in its captain, the QB, to improvise and adapt.

Another language exists to describe quarterbacks—leader, playmaker, captain, game-changer. This can flow from talent and skill, but it also describes an attitude of player and coach. More than a few of the game manager QBs reflect a coaching assessment of their constrained skill or experience. The plan/manager approach locks in limitations before the game starts. It represents the triumph of risk assessment over play.