Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sports Ethics: “Step Up”

“We were down. Coach told me I had to step up my game and I did.”

How many times have we heard this expression from coaches and players: step up.

I think the notion of step up carries real weight as an ethical and psychological moment in sport and represents a model to carry into professional domains.

Think about the metaphor for a moment: step up. It places the person on a step, a place, even a plateau. The notion specifies that the athlete or professional exists at a particular level of performance on an upward climb. The level may be a plateau or it may be a lower rung, does not matter. What does matter: the metaphor urgently states that the present step/level/plateau does not suffice to achieve the goal. Staying at this level, this step, means failure.

Let’s think about some classic situations where a player or coach must step up their play. I am going to use team here but this applies as much to individuals in individual sports as team competition.

  • ·      Seniors or veterans have graduated, and the younger players of the team have to step up and perform at a higher level of skill and commitment.

  • ·      The team has fallen behind in a contest, and the contest verges on getting away from the team. The player must step up and perform to bring the team back from its lethargy and gain energy and focus.

  • ·      The team possesses a lead but the other team makes their expected run. The momentum seems to be shifting, and a player has to step up and stop the run.

  • ·      Players can step up when a window exists to excel to break the game open like avoiding a tackle and finding a fourth gear or making a free throw shot with time running out.

  • ·      Players are challenged to step up when a championship or playoff or chance is on the line.

All these situations differ but carry a common denominator—the existing level of performance will not work and must change. To the point of the game, the performance must rise up from its immediate level.

Step up has two related connotations. First, it might mean that a team is playing below its normal level. The below norm can occur when a team has not prepared for the challenge opponents pose. They took an opponent for granted and must literally snap out of lethargy and step up to their normal level of play. A team might be surprised or tired and is not containing the other team’s comeback. Athletes must change their emotional and mental mind set on the spot and take the game seriously. They need to respond with integrity to the challenge before them.

Second, step up suggests that just being competent or playing at the norm, even if very high, will not work. A team might be playing hard and well, but just not good enough to win. A team may have been playing very well, but the opponent is roaring back, making a run, or they opponents take the lead. This calls for exceptional performance. Exceptional does not demand the impossible but dictates that a player pull it all together and bring the absolute maximum physical, mental and emotional presence that they are capable of at this stage in their development. 

Stepping up means bursting past a performance plateau. This exceptional moment meets the test of the moment. Often players may not know they have it in them, but they achieve it. They step up.

A player can have a career game responding to the quality of the opposition or stakes of the game. They can have a break out performance or a breakout moment—they escape a tackle at a critical moment; they sack a quarterback to end a drive; they intercept a pass; they stop a run with an exceptional block or spike; they perform an extraordinary save. Each action not only personifies a great individual action but galvanizes a team. Stepping up can be contagious, and fellow teammates take heart from the action; they bear down more and give a more attention and energy. Not only does the opponent’s run stop, but momentum shifts as teammates gather up their focus and their collective performance rises.

Players on the verge of giving up recover. Coaches who started to call plays based on minimizing a loss take heart and re-infuse their play calling with risk and energy; they coach up, not down. A team comes back from behind.
Multiple players express their commitment to each other. They cheer and encourage each other. The team as a whole steps up, and the coaches respond in kind with deeper concentration and focus upon plays or the energy they convey to players.

To step up does not mean just to try harder. The player calls upon him or herself to attend more deeply, concentrate more intently and push their body and memory more powerfully. Step up involves physical and mental rising from a baseline to a higher baseline for a moment in time. It may presage a higher level of performance in the future for the player or team, but it succeeds for a moment, that is enough.

Successful stepping up expands a person’s imagination of the player he or she can become. To step up need not be a one shot moment, but a new possibility.

Friday, December 21, 2012

End of the Big East—Birth of an Old Fashioned Conference

Much like Argentina, no one should cry for the end of the Big East, and certainly no one should romanticize it. Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul, all urban undergraduate focused non football schools, are leaving the conference. This spells the end of a long painful death spiral. (As usual Pete Thamel does a fine job examing the process) In 1980 the Big East was carved out as the first completely commercial conference. It was created solely to stake out a market, produce a brand across disparate schools and increase the probability of getting schools into the NCAA basketball tournament. Born in commerce, it dies in commerce. One side effect may be the creation of a new conference that actually resembles what conferences were once upon a time.

From 1980 to 2005 the Big East launched an unparalleled period of success and visibility for its schools in basketball. Traditional eastern powers like Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse and Providence joined with newcomer powers like Connecticut and Pittsburgh to generate a depth of competition and market visibility. The Big East branded a distinct form of physical and tough basketball. Each year 6-8 teams got into the NCAA tournament, and their coaches spread the gospel of brutal Big East basketball across the land. The expansion of the NCAA tournament into a national liturgical event gained immense stature for its schools. Connecticut and Syracuse with their superstar coaches took home a series of titles

This basketball success could not withstand the pressures unleashed by the economic dominance of football over the last twenty years. College football and its vast popularity has reaped huge media money, and power conferences have reaped gigantic windfalls from conference contracts. These contracts at the five elite BCS conferences garner 15 to 19 million dollars a year for schools.

College football drives the profit. The Big East was never a football conference. Largely because no one else even looked plausible, the Big East snuck into the BCS championship pool as much as a sop to the mid major conferences as any football merit of the conference. Each year its BCS team got humiliated by real football powers in a random BCS bowl game. Heck, TCU quit the conference before it ever joined the conference.

A media consultant once told me, “aside from the tournament, basketball is filler for slots. It has bulk but not profits.”  The dominance of football and the migration of real money to the big five left the Big East vulnerable in two ways. First, it would never be a serious football conference. At random times Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia or Cincinnati might emerge for a year a two with a great player or coach. But the coach would inevitably move on, and the player would graduate. When Boston College, Miami and especially Virginia Tech jumped to the ACC, this portended the end of any hope of football elite status. Second, all the Big East schools were hemorrhaging money with football, and the inability of the conference to ever gain elite football status doomed them to perpetual money losing.

This still-born football status coupled with huge monetary losses from football meant any half way decent football schools looked for other conferences that could gain them more money and status. It also meant that the basketball only schools found themselves mooted by the desperate and futile search for football credibility. This lead to increasingly desperate overtures to Boise State, San Diego State, Tulane or whomever could bring a shred of credibility to the conference.

In addition unlike the ACC or Big 10, the Big East never had any serious academic credibility. Schools such as Syracuse or Pittsburgh or Louisville would jump to the ACC which offered more money, stability and more academic stature. Each defection lead to more panicked search for lower quality football schools to fill the void. The Big East could no longer fulfill the requirements of a  successful modern conference.

The paradox here lies with the non-football schools. Most of them were city based religious colleges colleges. They all remained mission driven undergraduate institutions. None of them had huge endowments, but all had fierce and loyal alumni based in urban areas. Many had added strong professional schools and grown into universities, but their core identity remains mission driven undergraduate education. None of them had added football, and the very few who did like Boston College struggled with indifferences and periodic success.

These urban, mission driven religious undergraduate schools had great markets in big eastern cities and had strong traditional rivalries among New York, Providence, Boston, New Jersey or Philadelphia. Many of these rivalries echoed back fifty years when schools clustered in small boxes to play intense rivalries. They all shared plausible commitments to serious undergraduate education with a values based foundation. Sister schools like Xavier, St. Louis, Creighton lived in different conferences. They now loom along with an interesting and similar newcomer like Butler as possible new allies for a reconstituted conference who would share a scale and values dimension.

This basketball driven conference would not make huge amounts of money, granted. The new conference, however, would connect strong rivalries among strong markets with strong committed undergraduate focused universities and colleges. It would also lead to strong filled auditoriums. The conference would post strong strength of schedule and high RPI ratings for the tournament. Travel for the Olympic sports would be manageable. It would have a strong brand, solid recruiting base, good coaches and regularly get strong exposure at tournament time.

More interestingly the conference schools would not face the economic hemorrhaging of football. Football is a two-edge sword. The vast majority of football schools lose serous money, and the losses require internal subsidies. Even with the new mega conference contracts, schools continue to lose money as they must pay rising salaries, build up facilities and pay back internal subsidies to schools. Freeing themselves from the football schools permits these undergraduate focused universities to live within their means, still gain visibility through NCAA tournament runs and imbed themselves in their communities as they once did. It still gives alumni a focal point of identity.

The demise of the first purely commercial conference creates a paradox. Who knows, maybe a new conference might emerge that shares similar undergraduate based values, has relatively contiguous markets with traditional rivalries and does not lose huge amounts of money each year chasing the dream of football largesse. It would be a conference based upon affinity and proximity. Now wouldn’t that be a change?

Big East Exodus

Virginia Tech2004ACC
Boston College2005ACC
TCU †2011Big 12
West Virginia2012Big 12
Rutgers2014Big Ten
Notre Dame2015ACC
St. John's*undetermined
Seton Hall*undetermined