The Team comes first.
It is the very foundation, the core, the literal mortar between the bricks that builds and holds successful teams together. The guardian of that essential principle is the head coach. In any and all situations the absolute belief that the team comes before the individual must be upheld.
When properly administered it is one of the greatest lessons that athletics teaches. It is based on humility, respect, teamwork, sacrifice, trust and being a part of something bigger than yourself. It is about achieving something you could not do on your own. It is about blending in, not standing out, about sharing the glory and the failure, it’s about being accountable and having someone’s back. Achieving sincere team unity is the holy grail of coaching, and it is not possible without defending the team first decree.
I had always believed that athletics would withstand the indiscernible moral erosion that has methodically eaten away at our society and that the individualistic movement, the “what’s in it for me” mentality would never be allowed to effectively infiltrate the athletic culture. Certainly, there have been isolated past examples, but it is now becoming alarmingly more evident in the athletic world at virtually every level.
The enormous payday awaiting elite college athletes has been significant for many decades. Only recently has it become a reason for top tier draft picks to forego bowl games deemed to be meaningless or even shut down their season entirely because the chance to be a national champion is no longer in reach. It is a self-centered response that many feel is completely justified. Putting the team first has literally been bought out by greed and selfishness. We rationalize it because of the enormous payday, knowing well that whenever money becomes the motivating factor, exploitation and irrational behavior will follow.
Call me “old school,” but this is Pat Riley’s “Disease of Me” in catastrophic form.
It is a concern for college sports not just because it violates the first rule of being on a team, but because it will spread like a cancer and with it the debilitating consequences. If I am not going to risk my swing at a top ten contract, why should 2nd or 3rd round picks risk theirs? Their payday is also significant compared to the general public. We are left to wonder how far it will reach and what sports it will infiltrate next. There are already whispers that Duke’s freshman sensation, Zion Williamson, will forego the NCAA tournament. Will college athletes be required to sign a pre-scholarship agreement that they will play in every game possible? Will high school seniors start shutting it down because they don’t want to risk a potential college scholarship? At what point does this line of selfish behavior become a character risk that outweighs the players talent potential? I can confidently answer in professional sports elite talent will always override character flaws for some teams.
The mere idea of “meaningless” games ironically has a great deal of meaning to the majority of players. Every athlete has a finite window of opportunity and meaningful games. For most it is through high school, for some college and for a select few the professional level. As athletes we are taught to cherish every game, to play every game like it is your last, because ultimately we don’t know when that last game will come. Once upon a time athletes were hot-wired to their teams and virtually nothing could break that connection. Brett Favre played through every injury imaginable, for 297 straight games, each time potentially jeopardizing his career. Contrast that with Le’Veon Bell’s decision to pass on $14.5 million and sit out an entire season in hopes of a bigger payday.
It’s a business we are told. We are also told it is just a game. So, which is it?
For coaches this is somewhat uncharted territory. Prima-donna players have always existed, but their selfishness was generally less overt and dealt with inside the teams circle. Unexpectedly and regrettably we have reached a time and place where the team no longer always comes first. It may not be the shot that implodes the Death Star of sports, but it is going to have crippling implications. Putting yourself first and abandoning your team is neither subtle nor indecisive. The interpretation of that message will swing to extremes wider than our current political divide.
At the high school level players move under the freedom of open enrollment and leave their teammates, not for money, but for the psychological currency of winning. The WIAA is now left chasing the tail of the very dog they created. They cannot realign conferences, make enough divisions or develop rules fast enough to keep up with the player movement that is creating pseudo all-star teams across the state in every sport. We are so concerned with pacifying head-in-the-clouds parents and promoting the “best players” that we have forgotten about the other 99% that make this whole experience possible.
And yet we wonder why so many athletes have become disenchanted with high school sports.
Philosopher J.L. Basford once said, “It requires strong constitution to withstand repeated attacks of prosperity.” On a scale of influence it may be difficult to assess which has more power, money or winning. And at the professional level, it doesn’t matter because they can accomplish both. See the Golden State Warriors or follow the residence changes of LeBron James.
Paradoxically none of these superstars have arrived alone. Coaches and teammates have had a profound impact on their achievements and success. Team achievement has always led to individual recognition. With all of that knowledge in tow they can still stand in their lockeroom and announce that they are walking away early. You guys can go ahead and finish up that “meaningless” game, I am going to take the money and run. As a coach who has always believed that the team comes first, it is Irreconcilable to me that this actually happens.
But then a wise man once told me, “Never use money to measure wealth or happiness.”
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org