The great leadership fallacy

If you haven’t noticed, sports people LOVE predicting shit. In between actual analysis, it’s basically what 90% of any football pre-game show consists of these days. You’ve got predictions of which team wins, predictions of how a player performs, Fantasy predictions, predictions of regular season awards, predictions of the playoffs and the Super Bowl and my personal favorite, “BOLD predictions” (which never are). It’s gotten to the point where predictions have become so common they’ve actually had the reverse effect. Ever hear someone say, “Hey I heard Jaworski pick your team to win Sunday?” Yeah, it’s because they’re mocking you over the fact that your team is now destined to lose because Jaworski predicted it. Fucking Jaws.

What bothers me about these predictions isn’t that they’re being made, but rather, in how they’re being formulated — i.e., from the shallowest well of knowledge required. It’s why NFL people love the NFL draft and scouting combine so much. Because everything from height, weight, speed, lateral movement, jumping ability and hell, even intelligence can be measured, it gives concrete prognostications of what a player might be in the NFL. It’s like sitting at a casino watching a poker dealer lose hand after hand and saying, “I think we might be able to win at that table.” So yeah, if a player runs a 4.3 40, you don’t exactly have to be the fucking Oracle to predict that some kid might be good at returning punts at the next level.

But what happens when quantifiable harbingers don’t add up? What happens when a player defies what the measuring tape or stop watch says? Or for older players, what father time says? What happens when guys like Mike Mayock run out of their phrase-of-the-day sayings like “Violent hands” or “Just a football player?” We lose our bearings and start latching onto things like “clutchness”, “intangibles”, or my personal favorite — leadership — to try and make sense of a player’s actual value.

I don’t think we need the saber metrics machine to understand the contradiction here. That, in a league obsessed with statistics and measurements as finite as a tenth of a second over the course of a 40-yard sprint or a single inch of disparity in height, there still exists this mystical combination of traits with no numerical value that contributes to a player’s and team’s success.

Obviously, other factors go into a team’s success beyond just hard numbers. If your team has an asshole in the locker room like Terrell Owens for example, chances are things aren’t going to go real well. But while ‘leadership’ might sound great when you have bullshit to peddle, the factors that make up the concept of leadership can largely be attributed to individual characteristics, goals or habits.

In other words, THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE of what a leader is supposed to be. Thing is, this isn’t an indictment of fraud on any of the players on this list. Their status as a leader to others is simply a byproduct of the things they’ve done to make themselves better as individuals. So if anything, it’s a testament to their own personal achievements that should be commended, not their desire to be leaders to others.

And one last thing. Think about the nature of the NFL. A league in which there are no real guarantees in contracts. Where a single play can end your career. And where the average career lasts less than the time it takes some people to plan their wedding. It’s in no player’s best interest to be a leader to others when he has himself to think about. His next contract. His last contract. Or simply, his one opportunity. Players don’t get into the league, excel in the league and stay in the league because they’re great leaders. It’s because their hyper-competitiveness pushed them to work harder, because their film room study made them smarter, or in many cases, because God gave them a shitload more talent than everyone else. People like to throw around the leader tag to older players specifically, but they forget that Ray Lewis at one point, was one of the fastest, strongest, smartest and hardest-working players in the league. He hasn’t stuck around to help groom his eventual replacement. He’s stuck around because he’s done the things necessary to stick around. And sometimes, by sheer osmosis, other players have learned from or have been inspired or motivated by those things. And thus, the ‘leader’ title is born. But make no mistake, the league is fueled by players doing everything they can to make themselves better. And they have to. Because when you’re a 35-year old receiver in his waning years running a crossing route with a feisty 25-year old corner on your ass and a linebacker built like a brick shithouse waiting to explode every fiber of your goddamn being, no amount of leadership is going to help you. Here are 5 of the most overhyped leaders talked about today:

Ray Lewis

When Ray Lewis went down last week to a torn tricep, NFL people couldn’t load their Twitter apps fast enough to declare how “big of a loss” Lewis’ leadership was going to be on the field. Nevermind that Lewis hasn’t been all that good in about three years. But because Lewis inspires just about every NFL cliche in the book (fiery, throwback football player, coach-on-the-field) and gives motivational speeches every time a camera is within five feet of him, sportswriters automatically attributed the Ravens’ impending decline to Lewis’ leadership, and not the fact that their quarterback has the pocket presence of a schizophrenic meth head, half their defense is old enough to carry an AARP card, and their other defensive stalwart, Ed Reed, looks like he lives in a trash can.

Tim Tebow

People often reference white football Jesus’ intensity and work ethic as evidence of his leadership. And hey, he’s got plenty of it. I bet no one works harder in the weight room, studies more film, works with more positional coaches and gurus, and in general, does everything in his power to get better. But is he doing this to inspire others? Or because he’s a QUARTERBACK WHO CAN’T THROW A FOOTBALL? I’ll go with the latter.

Charles Woodson

Being a Packers fan, this one pains me to say. But with Woodson out for six weeks with a broken collarbone, the Packers will miss his liabilities as a defensive player a LOT less than they’ll miss his leadership on the field. The fact that most old-fogey sportswriters refuse to admit is the NFL today is a young man’s game dominated by 20-somethings and evolutionary physical specimens like Calvin Johnson who at nearly 240 lbs., could have been an offensive tackle if he were playing in the 60’s. Woodson will no doubt go into the Hall of Fame as one of the best cover corners of his era. But remember before he came to Green Bay, Woodson was a petulant malcontent who was perpetually injured and about one fracture away from being out of the league. Now he’s apparently a leader. Guess a team like Green Bay, winning defensive player of the year and a Super Bowl will do that.

Russell Wilson

There’s a word people use for those who succeed in life despite them contributing very little to the cause: Luck. And yet here we are with Tim Tebow Jr., drunk on the same tired metaphysics that defined Tebow’s run in Denver:

  • Just a leader
  • He has an aura
  • There’s something about him
  • The “It” factor
  • All the intangibles

Guess what else he has? A 59% completion percentage, 8 touchdowns and 7 INT’s. Basically, he’s Brandon Wheedon with a better smile. Again, Wilson may become a very good quarterback. But for now, Seattle’s success has much more to do with their defense, running game and the refs than it does with Wilson’s leadership.

Tony Romo

Romo has been the beneficiary of the “leader” title almost inexplicably by way of empathy. Maybe it’s the result of being puppeteered by Jerry Jones all these years. Or maybe it’s because Romo’s primary physical attribute (his escapability) has almost been honed out of the sheer need for survival playing behind terrible offensive lines. All I know is the guy seems likable as shit. He’s the anti-Jay Cutler. He gets mangled at least three times a game and still shows up to his post-game pressers with that ‘golly-gee’ smile on his face. Romo seems to grasp how good he has it. Which makes him a great person. But like all the players on this list, he’s not necessarily, a great leader.


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