Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Objectives and Character: Ender's Game and Richie Incognito

The end goal of a head coach or manager is a championship. Winning is success.  As such, everything the head coach/manager does is orchestrated in order to win, from team drills to film study to game management.

The character of a player is important, although "character" inside a locker room setting needs to be better defined.  In a sporting landscape, character traits that are esteemed are: toughness, work ethic, energy, a team-first/me-second attitude, competitive, and an intense unwillingness to lose or give in.  And talent.  My gosh, yes, talent, which can sometimes even replace or override any of the other traits to a certain extent, at least for a temporary period of time.

"Character" in a life setting means something much different.  A person with good character in life is law-abiding, mature, understanding, open-minded, altruistic, kind, considerate... heck, we could go right down the Boy Scout Oath: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, brave, clean and reverent.  (Defining "reverent" has tended to get the boy scouts in trouble, though.)

If a player is, say, an alcoholic, or a homophobe, or a misogynist, or a religious bigot, or a dog-torturer, his teammates and head coach are willing to overlook it.  A player can have ten kids by nine women living in eight states, and it won't affect his play on the field.  If, however, he doesn't return from an ankle injury quick enough, he becomes a liability and cannot help his team win.  A player who would play on a broken leg is far more valuable, even if he eventually ends up injuring himself so severely that he'll never walk again.  Life outside of sports does not matter; family does not matter; all that matters is life leading up to game day.

You can start to understand the disconnect between the world inside and outside the locker room.

Let's speak in greater specifics.  A football team is at its best when it is physical, close-knit, and fired up.  Coaches do their best to get players' blood roaring leading up to game day.  Any quote of degradation or disrespect becomes bulletin board material, designed to provoke motivation.  Playing with a chip on your shoulder is a good thing.  Playing angry is even better.  If the coaches can convince their players that there is someone gunning for their jobs, the sense of urgency and panic motivates even further.

The most important rule to all of those concerned is that everything said and done within the team setting remains absolutely private and confidential -- it must not be spoken of outside the locker room, particularly in public.

Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito was asked by his coaches to toughen up teammate Jonathan Martin.  Consequently, Martin left the Dolphins.  This has led to a storm of reaction that spread far outside the sports landscape and became a part of national conversation, linking the events to bullying and hazing, among other larger matters.  The players are upset because Martin "broke the code," telling the public about what happened inside the locker room.  Martin is upset because of how he was treated -- and keeping this in-house was not going to heal his life one bit, the players and their code be damned.

The disconnect between those character traits favored and despised between the outside world and the world of sports is bridged by two audiences:  the team ownership and the fan base.  Both want their team to be as successful as possible, but neither wants to be embarrassed by those players comprising the team.

Richie Incognito has been suspended by his employers.

In the book "Ender's Game," recently released as a movie, the main character is Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a boy who is trained to lead the military in a climactic war to save Earth.  In order to cultivate the right character traits, the military makes certain that the boy is bullied, that he has no friends, that he seeks his own solutions to end problems forthright, and that he does not learn compassion.  He is raised to win, to do whatever it takes to win, and not to think of the loser.

Football's culture is much the same.  The loser does not matter.  The loser's health does not matter.  Heck, even the victor's health doesn't matter.  Everyone dies in the end -- and soldiers and football players die earlier than the rest of us.  All that matters is winning:  through hard work, through camaraderie, through tricks, through rehearsed execution, and through violence.

Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin's world is not too far removed from Ender Wiggin's world.  Thankfully, Ender lives in a fictional setting.  Earth is not really under attack.

Football, however, is largely fictional, too.  The goals and achievements have been manufactured for sporting entertainment and release.

But its ethical problems posed are deadly serious.