Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Coaches Make the "Program" not the School

In college sports the coach trumps everything. Traditionalists and commentators like to talk about "programs" and "schools" as the major reference point for intercollegiate athletics. If we are honest, however, coaches are far more important than schools. Coaches recruit the talent, they motivate the players, they call the games. Coaches win games and become  the face of the university far eclipsing presidents and faculty. This reality defines the world of college athletic "programs."

Programs and schools do not garner wins, good coaches do. Programs and schools do not recruit students, good coaches do. And in a critical twist for me as an academic, programs and schools do not get students graduated, good coaches do. Schools like Penn State, UCLA or Michigan State do not rise in national stature through their academics alone, they rise on the coattails of iconic coaches such as Duffy Daugherty, John Wooden or Joe Paterno.

In a capitalist system, which intercollegiate athletics resembles on the field of competition, successful individuals will be rewarded. In a winner take all system, which intercollegiate athletics is in its purest sense, the "winners" will reap disproportionate rewards. Today more than forty D1 football coaches make more than 2 million dollars a year, and the percentage will continue to rise. The salaries of just decent coaches at second level BCS schools dwarf salaries of university Presidents, state governors or anyone else in states except for investment bankers and Presidents of successful companies. This makes a perverse sense because good coaches of highly successful college football and basketball programs--the only two programs that may make money or count in terms of visibility and reputation--act as CEOs of sprawling staffs, constantly work to appease shareholders (boosters and fans), generate profits via media exposure and present the image of the university to the public at large.

The predictable rise of elite and highly paid coaches can create the illusion that programs and schools still matter. For instance the great program of Bear Bryant, Alabama, rules collegiate football from the tightly coiled heights of Nick Saban's steely will and intelligence. This year legendary Notre Dame has been restored to the top of the football heap under Brian Kelly's inspired guidance.

Yet both schools illustrate the very issue that the school matters far less than the coach. Notre Dame struggled for 15 years through mediocrity and chaos with a succession of at best good coaches and would be saviors until they got Brian Kelly who longed for the job Alabama had suffered through many years in the wilderness, winning a random championship here and there, but struggling until it offered Nick Saban the highest salary in college sports as Saban looked for an excuse to flee the NFL.

Basketball reflects the same dilemma. Kentucky sits atop the greasy pole with its corrupt but untouchable coach who spits in the eye of every academic ideal the NCAA professes. But until he arrived with his baggage of vacated championships, Kentucky went through coaches like water. UCLA still lives in the shadow of John Wooden with no coach able to match his legacy. North Carolina suffered through a series of failures after the dynasty of Dean Smith despite its superb reputation until they got  Roy Williams from Kansas. Williams, the coach, restored the "program's" glory and position. Schools really don't matter in the end; coaches do.

All this reduces to the reality that for an intercollegiate program what matters is not tradition or stature, but money. The top ten paid coaches in D1 football track the relative wealth of the programs with a remarkable degree of accuracy. Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, LSU etc remain powers at the moment because they have invested hugs sums of money in fine coaches and continue to pay top money to them. Alabama does not possess the sheer bulk or wealth of these schools, but like most SEC schools spends an inordinate amount of money on their football programs due to booster support beyond the size and status of the entire program.

That high salary usually reflects the ability to recruit and win which will usually determines the top contenders for national football honors. Basketball tends to be a more chaotic world. Although an oligarchy clearly exists, the sheer number of D1 schools, over 300, and the ability of schools to mount strong programs with eight players plus the surplus of young talented coaches means that the distribution or unpredictability of the talent and competitors is more widely distributed and more surprising than football.

But money alone will not guarantee success as professional baseball regularly demonstrates. Texas and Oklahoma pay some of the highest salaries to their coaches and are regularly in the hunt for the Big12 championship but not for the national championship for awhile. At the moment  legendary and fine coaches like Mack Brown at Texas may not be long for the conference. Smart and patient schools can hire up and coming coaches or be patient enough to invest in a long term program and coach and reap success with smarts and work.

Now a really smart and wealthy program can actually make this work to create the illusion that the school/program matters more than the coach. Ohio State has done this seamlessly with the implosion of Jim Tressel and the hiring of Urban Meyer. Michigan could have but precipitously fired a fine coach in Lloyd Carr, squandered their program with a misfit hire, and finally seemed to have recovered with another hire. Florida another rich school and smart school lost Urban Meyer and immediately went out to steal  coach in waiting Will Muschamp who got tired of waiting at Texas. USC a wealthy but not uber rich school hides its data since it is a private school, but stumbled for years before hiring Pete Carroll and is now stumbling with Lane Kiffin who may or may not grow into a fine coach,

The point to remember is that the name, tradition or pedigree of the school matters far less than the wealth of the program. This matters even more as the time for coaches to turn around programs shortens. The blood bath has begun this year with 12 coaches fired before the first of December, two after one year and one after two years. But all of them especially Gene Chizik of Auburn who won the national championship only two years ago requires huge buyouts.The SEC alone ran up over 20 million dollars in buyout costs in two years!

The NCAA has no power over coaches salaries as court cases have demonstrated. The salaries rise because university presidents and regents continue to pay them. But the NCAA has recognized the centrality of coaches and coaching responsibility in its  new reforms. Almost all the academic reforms aimed at pushing students toward graduation have the incentives of the coaches as their target. So schools that do not move students along to graduation lost scholarships which have direct impacts on coaches. The Calhoun and Connecticut penalties including banning from the NCAA tournament again target coaches for academic failure. The newly targeted suspensions and published graduation rates again target coaches as do the new laws to make coaches responsible for the activity of their cheating assistants all focus on the coach's centrality.

 Universities are not dominant athletic powers in a strong organizational sense at anymore. What matters is the quality of coaching at the top and the quality of assistant coaches and recruiters and conditioning staff. The key to building a college program that endures is either to get a great coach and keep him, the Penn State or Nebraska model. Or find the best coach money can buy for as along as you can afford him, the Florida model. Alabama created a model followed by many-- cycle through a coach every three years until you either find somone who sticks, or give up and go to the Florida model as they did with Nick Saban.

During the off season select coaches suddenly get new extensions; buy outs are increased; all to seal off coaches from the market. This means that the salaries of all coaches continue to rise. The relation between the coach and the university community thins out even further.

If there is a saving grace in all this, and I doubt it, it reminds us that there are no automatic passes based upon institutional status. Individuals and teams of individuals build quality institutions. Institutions do not continue on top just because they have a name. They have to earn it, every day, every year. Institutions do this with high quality people, not with reputation and inertia.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sports Ethics: Mistakes Were Made

I was startled last week listening to a coach interview when the coach uttered words no coach or leader should ever say, “mistakes were made." I cannot think of a worse statement by anyone in authority. The phrase is designed to hide responsibility for an action and make it even harder to isolate and rectify the problems. Mistakes were made is one of the worst ethical assessments a leader can make.

I don’t know who invented the passive voice in English but you could not ask for a better way to get people off the hook. The key to passive voice is that the object—a mistake becomes the subject, and the verb moves to past passive construction. Notice the key-missing ingredient—no subject exists, the actor, the doer disappears. Mistakes were made is a favorite locution of corporate and political leaders on the spot.

Bureaucracies love the passive voice. The passive voice hides responsibility and authorship. Any institution that creates products that emerge from committees moves to the passive voice that provides wide plausible deniability for everyone associated with the process. The organization can then hide responsibility or better yet disseminate it over so many people as to make it meaningless. This in turn permits people to go about doing crazy or failed or horrible things with relatively clear consciences. It also means no one has an incentive to learn or get better because no one internalizes responsibility for the outcome and no one is held responsible for the outcome. Accepting responsibility impels learning and growth.

The ethics of the phrase begins with its construction where no one accepts responsibility for the actions done. The speaker does not accept responsibility nor does the speaker accuse anyone else of making the mistakes. The phrase represents a completely neutered moral claim—I am not responsible and I am not claiming anyone else is responsible. It is hard to imagine a more worthless phrase except to escape responsibility or to exonerate oneself.

Beyond the responsibility denying construction, the word mistakes compounds the ethical elusiveness of the claim. Traditionally when we make mistakes, even when we accept responsibility, we basically state that we did not intend to do this badly or do this harm.

A mistake is a mitigated ethical category where one admits harm was done or failure to achieve a good. A person can admit responsibility for it—although not in this construction—but the person denies that he or she intended to harm or not achieve the goal. A mistake is not done on purpose.

This is not the place to discuss in detail, but mistakes can sometimes occur because of negligence. More often, however, people make mistakes because they misread or misdiagnose a situation. A person may see the situation unfolding but miss a critical point and diagnose it wrongly. Or a person might simple respond a little too quickly too slowly after the diagnosis. Sometimes people just go blank, the mind paralyzes and no obvious pattern or meaning occurs to them. They react rather than initiate action. I could go with the myriad ways we as well intentioned people may make mistakes such as when facing surprise they were not trained for. People might react to planned deception and not see through it. All of these actions do not involve intended harm or collapse of a plan.

The language matters deeply here because patterns of language create patterns of expectations and norms. Coaches, players, and leaders who rely on the passive voice teach the wrong lesson about not accepting and claiming responsibility for actions. Claiming responsibility involves the motivation to get better and learn from mistakes.

I can understand a coach, player or leader trying to avoid calling out a colleague in a public setting. The coach I heard may know damn well who made the mistake. Often coaches know more because as spectators we only see the person who looks like he or she made the mistake, The expert, however, knows that the perceived “goat” is actually merely the player left in the lurch when others failed to follow through on a scheme or misread a pattern. The person who appears to make a mistake in fact represents the end game of a cascade of mistakes from the whole team.

So mistakes were made might be used to protect a team/player in public, but it would be much easier to use a collective “we” made mistakes or “our team” made mistakes. Leaders emphasize and isolate the collective endeavor and remind everyone, coaches included, that the team’s decisions and actions made this possible.

When my kids were growing up we had a song we loved to sing called “Mr. Nobody.” The key refrain was that whenever something bad happened and a parent would ask, “who did this?” The answer, “Mr. Nobody  did it.

Mistakes were made suggests a habit of thought that veers from accepting, isolating and speaking in private and public about common accountability and responsibility.

Speech habits can shape expectations and shape our very thoughts. If we speak one way enough, then we actually start to think that way. Worse, if we hold responsibility, then those for whom we set expectations start to internalize them

Good leaders, good coaches, good players avoid the passive voice; they do not hide, deny or duck responsibility. Even if they have not yet figured out who is responsible or what went wrong, they know it went wrong. A good leader ensures people accetp responsibly and work to make sure everyone learns from their mistakes.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sports Fan Ethics

Being a sports fan is an existential choice. It involves a way of being in the world and relating to other human beings. The point of the game is being a fan involves a moral stance. It means acting in ways that impact others and the game. This  means it involves obligations and responsibilities. As a friend of mine reminded me,  spectators refer to "the team" and fans use the word "we."

This all became clear to me when I realize how early this all starts. Last week a major scandal erupted in Florida where the parents and fans of little league football had been indicted for betting on the games and hiring coaches who had criminal records amongst other things. Along with the incredible cost to the young student athletes and the horrible role models this provided, it reminded me again of how deep and important being a fan can be to many people, a link that can cause the craziness of Florida or a fun and important way to link to community and study and admire a form of human mastery.

Games depend upon rules. Athletes depend upon rules and conceptions of form and excellence. The very idea of winning requires rules that define what constitutes excellence, achievement and winning. The essence of competition builds upon the idea that rules govern behavior. Competition without rules reduces to war.

As I suggested, fans shape the environment and impact the athletes and competition. This involves them in the game and their influence, unlike spectators and audiences, carries a set of obligations; to be a fan is a moral stance about loyalty, commitment and participation.

I don't want to go overboard here, but as fans, people act, influence others and model for others. They infuse social gatherings with their presence and they pass on loyalties and relations to those around them.

Ideally a fan appreciates the team and sport and athletes. A deep aspect of being a sports fan lies in the aesthetic enjoyment (no true fan would use words aesthetic enjoyment) of the beauty and pure form of the sport they love. Being a fan involves people in communities of like minded people, so they can share common identity, emotions and conversations. Fandom through blogdom, bars and office NCAA pools demonstrates  and creates a subculture of identity, community and conversation. It enables people not only to vent and gloat but to discuss and appreciate the fine points of the form of the sport and the dimensions of its players.

All this suggests that the moral world of being a fan should involve respect for the game, players and fellow travellers. It means that fans can argue and shout and scream and holler, but it should occur within the bounds of norms of respect (these are elastic norms since some groups can use profanity laced diatribes and still laugh with and at each other). Simply by actions, taunts, movements fans force the athletes brain do do more and subtly can subvert the attention needed for a fine motor skill activity under active stress. Fan actions matter and influence games, no matter what athletes claim.

Fans have obligations to at least understand the game; you often see this dynamic played out in teaching younger fans the nuances or the painful experience of watching two people on a date, one a fan and the other bemused but trying hard to attend to the fan's nuttiness. You also see it among fans who can acknowledge the other team's excellence, "good play,"  "nice call," "good shot." You try to teach this to kids and neophytes so that they understand this is about both the sport and the team.

The problems emerge because of the identity pathologies of any community. Fans can become more committed to winning than the team or sport. The obsession with winning can be tied to collective need to feel superior (welcome to war again). The winning drive can coexist with another dynamic of identity--the we/they black/white world of asserting my identity and value by devaluing another. Racism depends  upon this dynamic, so does sexism.

One of the crucial borderland obligations of sports fans is how to treat opposing players and teams. If the fans have overinvested their identity in winning alone (if a fan arrives at the point where they cannot acknowledge a great play by an opposing player, they have crossed a dangerous boundary). (I must confess I have spent a decade booing and hating Alex Rodriquez for his betrayal of the Mariners and still cannot bear to acknowledge that he has any worth as a player or human being for that matter).

Here is a critical boundary area for fan. It is part of the oblgation to root for their team. Heckling and getting into the other guys head is more problematic but fits for a good fan. But as a coach friend of mine said "if you heckle, be clever, be good, but don't be cruel." We all know and appreciate good heckling, but more than a few fans personalize their screams or worse they invoke racists, sexist or foreign baiting (I am amazed at the number of mindless fans who shout "USA" when an international player is under pressure even when their own team may have three internatioanl players of their own, but who said consistency had anything to do with fans.)

One of the classic ploys, in movies at least, is for a coed to flash an opposing player to deflect their attention. A very clever and very subversive act occurred several years ago when California coeds created a fake coed identity named Victoria who engaged in on line chats with a UCLA player. At the game the Cal. rooters revealed the "Victoria" cheer and even quoted textings in their jeers/cheers/heckles. It ruined the players night and revealed a very clever and subversive use of the social web world of athletes.

However more than a few fans stalk players, abuse players and coaches mercilessly with profanity, racist and sexist catcalls and remarkably ugly comments to the players, coaches and administrators on line and through web sites.  I've sat by benches where fans spat on the players and those  nearby. The pseudo anonymity of the web as well as the fact that internet flames are not tempered by any sense of how they impact the people encourages the same sort of amoral or immoral behavior of being in a crowd. People lose their sense of accountability, respect and appreciation of both the sport, the humans and their own responsibilities. People who believe they are anonymous or lost in a crowd will do things they would never do if held accountable as an individual.

Contagion is a psychological reality where the emotional and behavioral actions of one person can change the emotional affect of others. In economic terms bad fans drive out good fans. In social psychology the haunting example of the death of Kitty Genovese reminds us all that people will stand around while another person is murdered waiting for others to act. In fandom  this "bystander effect" encourages people to stand around while one obnoxious idiot spews invective to hurt the players and infect those around him. The picture here is of a young kid giving finger--is  this what we want to hand on as fans? Like racism, bad fanhood is learned and handed on.

Another crowd effect encourages the darkside of fans. Being in a crowd that feels anger and rage encourages people to feel release from their normal moral commitments. The crowd encourages a form of anonymity and people who believe they are anonymous will do things they would never do if alone and accountable. The soccer riots in Europe epitomize all these coming together. The recent killings of fans as people stood around and cheered resembled gang executions.

Moral and psychological life is strange. Every good aspect of being a fan carries a shadow. Identity, common fate and language, particpating with others in emotional expression, if turned ever so slightly, end up with vile cruelty to other teams, to human players and to other fans.

Being a good fan matters and carries obligations. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sports Ethics: Winning Ugly

A win is a win. This is a fundamental maxim of competitive sport. But a second level of discussion always occurs around how a team wins. Teams can win well; games can be well fought and competitive; teams can give up; games can be one sided, you get the picture. Games won by cheating carry a particular moral stigma and if discovered are discounted; but I have always been fascinated one kind of win—winning ugly. This weekend I witnessed several ugly wins and got a sense of what it means.

The UW football team managed to beat the California football team but not for lack of trying to lose. UW “won ugly” by the assessment of its coaches, players and fans. I recall one sequence where four turnovers occurred in eleven plays and another play where four simultaneous penalties cancelled each other out. The team won but it was an ugly win.

Now ugly is one of those interesting words with a cavernous etymology. It emerges from references to the frightening and horrible and fearful in life. Later versions add a moral meaning of profoundly morally offensive and wrong. By the 15th. Century it had taken on its reference to appearance as something “frightful or horrible” in appearance which set such events apart from the normal run of things that appear unpleasant or unattractive. To be ugly means something really has to be frightful or horrible.

These links bring an ugly win back to its roots in dread and fright. An ugly win despoils the line and form and smooth technique of a sport that provide the aesthetic and performance core. This violation of the internal logic of the sport is reinforced by the external appearance that lacks the smooth crisp precision and power of watching a well-played game.

Remember despite all this the team wins. This accounts for the interesting nature of the word. The team wins but players leave relieved and worn out rather than exhilarated. Many are disgusted or angry at their play, but they still won. This is the type of game coaches breath a sigh of release and at best say, “we can learn a lot from this game.”

Winning ugly means that the quality of play was low by the standards of the sport. The team may “win” but it did not demonstrate fine skill or excellent form. To be blunt, they played badly. Their technical execution was sloppy and not crisp. This lack of execution permeates their fine individual skills as well as messy coordination on schemes and play. I have talked about this moment for an individual when I discussed what it means to have to “grind it out” when a player does not possess his or her best stuff. People have to step up even when they do not have their best skills at hand.

The counterpoint here is when we know a player or team is at the top of their game. We can see the smooth flow and crisp execution and admire and enjoy the sheer virtuosity and skill unfolding before us on the field. Coaches, players and fans have an idea in the back of their mind of what great or perfect form looks like. Sometimes one team will hits their stride or at rare times both teams will be competing at their highest emotional, physical and intellectual level. Those games we remember for their sheer force and beauty.

I believe ugly play moves beyond the failure of execution and the inability of players to discover and deploy excellent form in their assignments. As my example from the Washington game suggests, ugly wins are also riven with mistakes. Teams and players are literally beating themselves in ugly wins.

Ugly wins are larded with an excessive number of penalties, fouls, turnovers, and saturated with errors of the mental and physical varieties. These errors and penalties further disrupt the flow and smooth performance of the game. They take away accomplishments like runs or points scored or give the other team advantages like a penalty kick or an extra man on the field or free throws or loss of a down. The point is that a team starts to beat itself by cumulative errors. The self inflicted errors like off sides in football or steps in basketball or double faults in tennis add up, each one undercutting smooth execution, giving the other side an unearned advantage and denying the team a chance to gain an advantage.

These add up to a form of sloppiness that can be contagious. It can play out as frustration that leads players to try too hard which in turns undermines smooth flowing execution. Errors and mistakes generate anger or frustration with each other, and players can turn on themselves rather than focus upon the other team. The internal cooperative schema can be thrown off, and this lack of synchronicity leads plays to start to not trust each other which in turn leads to more sloppiness as players try to do too much or jump too quickly or mistake hurrying for quickness.

Yet amid this disorganization and mistakes and failures, a team can pull it together just enough to win, and they came to win. Winning when you are playing ugly draws upon its own particular strength and trust that grinding it out also requires. Jim McLaughlin the coach of UW VB team had a similar straggling match this weekend that his team pulled out despite its errors and lack of cohesion. As he put it, “sometimes you've got to just kick, bite, and do whatever you have to do to find a way to win, and we did. Utah played well and we faced some adversity and didn't back down, so that's the good part."

Ugly games possess neither beauty of form nor execution. People labor and stumble and willfully grind out their assignments. Nothing comes easy or flows. It is not pleasant to watch the sport of such a game. Fans and players alike are just glad to get off the field with a win. Their relief comes from an exhaustion that can only come battling incessant mistakes, crumpled confidence and fixing them on the fly. Ugly wins are born usually of desperation and drawing deep. The team hangs on to win, but it does win.