When I was young, the most depressing thing a girl could say about a boy was “ahhh, he’s really nice”. It was meant as a compliment but every red-blooded male took it as an insult. ‘Nice’ meant ‘inoffensive’ or ‘friend material’ – a shoulder to cry on when they’ve been dumped by someone they actually fancied. In many ways ‘nice’ meant ‘loser’.
Being sensitive, empathetic and considerate won you few friends, and even fewer girlfriends, at school. One’s social status was largely based on appearance, self-assurance and how good one was at sport. The blokes who looked ordinary, were a bit insecure, and couldn’t hit a cow’s posterior with a banjo during PE, were the only people who cared how ‘nice’ someone was. Being labelled a ‘good guy’ was the consolation prize nobody wanted in a competitive environment.
If you asked someone who wasn’t cool what they thought of the popular kids, the response would invariably be they’re ‘’arrogant’ and ‘aloof’. It was mostly jealousy speaking of course: the cocky characters would inevitably walk off with the pretty girls, get good marks and go on to have successful careers.
When all is said and done, one of the most valuable attributes a young man can have is confidence. So what if this occasionally crosses the line into arrogance? It’s human to have flaws. And it’s far better to be successful and happy, even if that means nonentities sniping at you from the side-lines, than let anxiety or bashfulness hold you back in life.
At this point, you may wonder what relevance the schoolyard has to professional sports. I mention it because I’ve often thought the bubble pro sportsmen inhabit is like being stuck at school: they exist within a tightknit group, navigate cliques, live in each others pockets and maybe even stab each other in the back. But the similarities don’t end there of course.
Most pro sportsmen have never had a real job, third parties organise everything for them, and their on-field antics involve sledging, play-acting, trying to get opponents in trouble, and strutting around like members of the T-Birds. Such behaviour in a civilized adult world would be treated with disdain.
Sportsmen usually get away with this behaviour because, ostensibly, winning is all that matters. Or is it? The sports I love, and the teams I follow, have recently been infiltrated by a spate of nice guys. So called ‘badies’ have been alienated and tossed overboard in a frenzy of self-righteousness. It’s almost like the unpopular crowd have stolen the football and sabotaged break time.
When setbacks have struck the teams I support, the bugle has sounded, scapegoats have been found, the egotistical vanquished, and a new moral order established. It’s as if someone has suddenly decided that ethical behaviour and winning are inextricably linked – even thought sporting history suggests the opposite is true.
Our country seems obsessed with sporting morality. When the Windies were the best cricket team in the world in the 1980s, many people forgot about the broader context – that these small islands, with limited resources, had risen up and beaten their colonial masters – and portrayed their fast bowlers as bullies.
Instead of admiring the West Indians fighting spirit and considerable skills, bitter Englishmen argued the Windies’ game revolved around violence and intimidation. England were losing, but at least we had the moral high-ground, eh. The Windies shrugged and walked into the distance laughing with the Frank Worrell trophy tucked under their arm.
It was a similar story when Steve Waugh’s Aussies were thrashing the pink panties off us in the 1990s. Many Englishmen became fixated with the Australians’ behaviour. We berated them for sledging, derided their unsporting nature and revelled in their supposed lack of charisma.
Waugh didn’t give two hoots if the poms liked his side or not. He just won the Ashes every time. The England teams he ground into the dirt were full of ineffectual nice guys like Hick and Ramprakash – players who probably had twice Waugh’s natural talent but less than half his determination and steel.
More recently, the England rugby and cricket sides have adopted a somewhat puritanical attitude to morality. After the excesses of the England squad at the 2011 rugby World Cup – dwarf tossing anyone? – the RFU sacked Martin Johnson and replaced him with a coach whose main attribute was being a nice and having a close relationship with emerging players.
Stuart Lancaster vowed to clean up the England team, instil discipline and improve their image. In the weeks before the World Cup, supposed malignant influences like Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi were excluded on disciplinary and moral grounds. The culture couldn’t accommodate loose cannons. If they couldn’t be trusted off the pitch, apparently they couldn’t be trusted on it. We all know how that one worked out. It turns out that bags of integrity and a halo isn’t a substitute for talent, experience and a bit of attitude after all.
The obvious equivalent in cricket was the sacking of Kevin Pietersen, an abrasive and notoriously egotistical player according to his critics. It didn’t matter that KP was his team’s all time leading run scorer, worked hard and mentored young players; a new MD and an outgoing coach decided it was England’s poor team culture, rather than Mitchell Johnson, who had won the Ashes for Australia.
The exclusion of Pietersen was sudden and reeked of scapegoating. The board suddenly decided, despite the absence of a smoking gun, that the nefarious player had been a swelling tumour that now, all of a sudden, had to be removed – even though they’d lived with his quirks for the last seven years and he’d been part of many successful teams.
Once again the moral argument – that the new team culture could not accommodate a prolific, immensely talented but difficult personality – overshadowed the practical one: that talent wins matches rather than players’ prowess at holding hands and singing team songs.
The ECB underlined its moral purge by reappointing the whiter-than-white Peter Moores as coach. The ‘hard-working’ and ‘honest’ Moores had oodles of ‘integrity’ (and was liked by all and sundry) but once again niceness was prioritised over qualities that actually mattered.
It’s not just us Brits that get sidetracked by moral issues though. Just over a year ago the San Francisco 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL and many people’s favourites to win the Super Bowl. There was just one problem: a handful of their players had been in trouble with the law.
Meanwhile, their larger-than-life, and incredibly successful head coach Jim Harbaugh, used to get a bit animated in games. When things didn’t go the 49ers way, Harbaugh would jump up and down like a school kid having a tantrum: he often frothed at the mount while screaming at officials. It wasn’t a good look.
During the 2014-15 season the 49ers owner Jed York, a wealthy thirty-something with no life experience who had inherited the team from his uncle, started to find Harbaugh’s antics a little wearing. He also found his head-coach abrasive and difficult to work with – not that York should have been involved with the management of the team anyway.
A whispering campaign soon began against Harbaugh and news leaked (even thought leaking is morally dubious) that the coach would be fired at the end of the season – even if the 49ers won the Super Bowl. The 49ers roster, clearly unsettled by all the rumours, finished the year with a disappointing won eight and lost eight record. Harbaugh immediately left for Michigan. Several players followed him out the door by retiring unexpectedly and prematurely. Actions speak louder than words I suppose.
After interviewing a number of high profile external candidates, York ultimately decided to replace Harbaugh with a position coach who was already an employee. That’s like replacing Sir Alex Ferguson with one of Mike Phelan’s assistants. The decision was absolutely crazy on paper, but York had his reasons: the new head coach, who goes by the name of Jim Tomsula, was a good guy who got on well with the players. The ensuing harmony was supposed to propel the 49ers to perpetual success. York didn’t care that Tomsula was just a regular Joe with no experience; he just wanted someone “nice” that wouldn’t rock the boat.
At the press conference announcing Tomsula’s appointment, York justified the decision to sack one of the most successful head coaches in 49ers history by saying: “winning isn’t the only thing that matters; winning with class is what matters”. One assumes this will be etched into York’s tombstone one day.
Of course, what York hadn’t considered is that actually winning is a prerequisite to winning with class. Thus far the likable Tomsula, the coach the players love, has 2-6 losing record; his team is imploding and ranks dead last in the NFL in nearly every statistic that matters. Meanwhile Harbaugh is back to winning ways at Michigan. Nobody is surprised.
The bottom line is that ethics in sport are essentially irrelevant. The cliché ‘nice guys come last’ is a cliché because it’s true. There are exceptions, of course, but generally winners in top-level sport are either obsessive, stubborn, arrogant … or all three. And if they’re nice guys deep down, it’s often necessary to hide their better nature.
The best coach in NFL history, Bill Walsh, cared deeply about his players. But business was business; there was no room for sentiment in his quest for perfection. He was ruthlessly efficient. He didn’t wait for the team’s best players to decline; he traded or released them a year before he expected them to start regressing.
Although Walsh’s strategy was somewhat harsh on a human level – it damaged personal relationships and created bitterness amongst former players – Walsh knew exactly what was needed to win: tough love and mental toughness. If you didn’t like it, it was tough luck.
Ask yourself this: how many of the top managers in any sport are known as being ‘nice guys’ and how many are known for being ‘ruthless’ and pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour? The likes of Mourinho, Ferguson and Harbaugh all have a hard edge and do (or did) whatever it takes to win. They’re often rude to the media, in trouble with the authorities, and create a siege mentality to motive their players. They don’t suffer fools lightly and don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them.
Top managers are usually no-nonsense individuals. They believe it’s better to be respected, or even feared, than liked. No matter how much players like a coach, they’re not going to respect him unless he can make hard decisions and lead the team to victories.
At the end of the day winning takes winners, and winners like coaches who can help them to win. They couldn’t care less how ‘nice’ a coach is. They crave leaders they can trust, not a favourite uncle, when battle commences out on the pitch.
Calling a coach ‘nice’ is no compliment at all. When boards, chairmen and owners forget this, they’re displaying a catastrophic lack of judgement. They’re making a schoolboy error.