Sports, Bullying, and Pop Ideas about Leadership

Ask Dr. ScapegoatThanks to All-American lineman  Jonathan Martin, we hear that locker room culture in the NFL caters to racism, bullying to “toughen up young players,” and  all manner of hazing and extortion enthusiastically supported by most coaches, team owners, and senior players—and justified by its supposed positive effects on creating a culture of winning.

The subject is much in the news lately, as more and more cases of sports-sponsored scapegoating appear, and more and more athletic injuries leading to chronic ailments, including brain degeneration, are publicized. These athletes are our kid’s heroes. In a blog in April, Dr. Scapegoat railed against the effects of excessive sports emphasis on education:  “Something is wrong with sports in our society. Something terribly amiss with the role and goals of young athletes, their coaches, and the educational institutions that ‘support’ them so handsomely.” Today, let’s take a look at the effects of our “kid-inspiring” sports culture on the structure and ethics one of its biggest supporters, American business.

Do you agree with ESPN that ‘the NFL needs Richie Incognito more than it needs Jonathan Martin’?

It all begins early on Saturday morning  at middle school’s athletic fields in any U.S. town and city when thousands of kids, their parents, referees, and coaches gather for soccer and football. Some kids love it, especially the good athletes. They are required to dress up in uniforms, usually provided by sports companies. The games and practice run on a tight authoritarian schedule. There are obligatory rituals, which appear to support good sportsmanship. Rules are rigorously enforced; rule-breaking is dealt with firmly. Parents like watching their kids and having time to chat with their friends with little interruption. The melting pot of America, missing in so many of its better educational institutions, is front and center. How to argue against the virtue in all this?

Below the surface of this juggernaut, the argument is pretty easy to make. For one thing, you’re pretty much screwed if you’re a poor athlete. Ditto if you don’t like the regimentation, the costumes, and the subtle scapegoating implicit in team rewards and the parent supported team structures. Watching all this one morning in Albuquerque, I aired these and many other criticisms. No one liked what I said until I asked what happened to pickup games (in leadership parlance, a self-organized organization) and the delights of a weekend without hierarchical structures and parental control. Some of the old timers (people over 45) got into reminiscing. Yes, it did look like a middle-class prison out here, one said. And sure, Nike and the other corporations are creating vast new and old markets with little payback. But wait a second, came the cry, isn’t this preparing our children and grandchildren for leadership and good jobs? Aren’t these structures what America needs to stay competitive?

Well, no. I do a lot of leadership training and consultation to business and other systems. Organizations like these Saturday mornings sports venues are old-fashioned and counter-productive, unless you think the old boy networks and male (and female) brawn are the wave of the future! It certainly doesn’t support the development of innovative leaders. It doesn’t teach effective and productive group structures; it doesn’t model gender equality.

I will try to provide backup to these opinions and more in the next blog. But for now just consider how Jonathan Martin, the All-American black Stanford athlete who outed scapegoater Richie Incognito and the NFL culture of scapegoating (as if we didn’t know) is described on ESPN, “The NFL needs Richie Incognito more than it needs Jonathan Martin. Coaches … look at guys like Martin, known as soft-spoken and thoughtful while at Stanford, with skepticism. Does he have the killer instinct? Does he care enough? Those questions don’t apply to Incognito. Coaches might not want to see him after hours, but they love him on the field.”

The new wave of business leadership? I don’t think so. Do you?

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