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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

An athlete saying what they feel out loud is not always the best thing

It’s easy to be critical of professional athletes when it comes to what they say in media interviews.  Often they are criticized for being “boring” and having nothing to say, in part because they speak in endless clichés.  However, if an athlete does say something out of the ordinary, they are often in turn  condemned if their comments are construed as negative or not “politically correct”.

It is no doubt a delicate balancing act for athletes.

That said, it was disappointing to hear a comment recently from a member of the Toronto FC.  After the Major League Soccer team had just lost its eighth consecutive game to begin the 2012 MLS season, the player in question, Ryan Johnson, appeared to take umbrage with the strategy and tactics of his head coach, Aaron Winter.

Quotes attributed to Johnson were detailed in an Associated Press story after the game.

Said Johnson, "It's embarrassing, I think. It's embarrassing that the fans come to watch us and we're just playing so defensive. You saw the frustration for me because I felt we were on our heels the whole time just waiting for them to play the ball. We were just sitting in our half the whole time," he explained.
"We did that the last game against Montreal and it was the worst. It was the worst feeling, like I didn't even want to play any more. It's awful."

Observers have different views on whether a coach should ever “call out” his own players in public through the media when they under-perform.  In this case, it appeared to be the player calling out his own coach.

We can debate whether a player has the right to express their extreme frustration after a tough loss.  Most would likely agree that it’s only natural to feel frustrated when a team works hard yet continues to lose games.  By all accounts Johnson is a responsible, dependable player for the Toronto side.

What is disappointing, though, is to hear a player say—out loud—the phrase, “like I didn’t even want to play any more…”

If that is true, then by extension fans have every right to believe that the player was not in fact playing his best, was not putting out for the team and was certainly not demonstrating leadership on the field.  A player may well disagree with the tactics he is asked to execute, but his job—once the strategy is accepted and implemented—is to play within the team’s system and do everything they can to make it successful.

Given the big salaries that many professional athletes make nowadays, they often have more say in how a team is “run” than they did decades ago.  But ownership still pays the bills, management still signs the players and builds the team.  For their part, players freely choose to sign with and stay with a particular team.  Ultimately, the coach is hired to develop and execute a plan for his or her team.  If there is an issue, some serious disagreement between players and coaches about the “plan”, then surely that should be addressed internally and privately—and not publicly through the media, when it can be perceived as sour grapes and a player not taking responsibility for his own—or his team’s—failings.

In a sport that is already afflicted by the “blame game”—notably players flailing their arms and blaming one another regularly on the field of play, in full view of spectators and large television audiences—this kind of comment seems to send another poor message to impressionable youth players.  As in, if things go wrong, blame someone else (the coach, the system, your teammates…) rather than look in the mirror and work harder to do a better job yourself.

Frustration under difficult circumstances is understandable and expressing that frustration can be understandable as well.

But publicly laying the blame for a lack of success at someone else’s feet is rarely the best response.

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