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GP 28 September 2005: Sportsmanship

On the Fields of Agincourt.  On the fields of Agincourt last Spring the best lacrosse team in all the land played a pallid challenger from a barony right near the capital.  Its knights make short work of the other team that evening, racking up a tremendous score against the underdogs.  The hometown crowd cheered derisively.   

After the game the coach of the winner went up to the losing goalie and praised his brave play.  He had made saves aplenty, 16 in all.  Not long after, the mediocre coach of the loser fired this goalie as part of an improvisational strategy which left his team in the dust all season.  But the classy winning coach who saluted the iron-willed opposing goalie saw his own team down all comers.  Indeed, in most walks of life, good coaches and good competitors have respect for and accord praise to worthy opposition.  That’s sportsmanship, a quality that eludes the also-rans on all of life’s avenues. 

My Losing Season.  The ever autobiographical Pat Conroy has written the story of his basketball life at the Citadel, a story he has relived again, and again, and again (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Conroy).  It is called My Losing Season, and it’s a good read, especially for those who know about basketball in the South and the Citadel.  His coach Mel Thompson was a hammer, a very competitive man who gave little thought to the concept of sportsmanship.  He learned his basketball from Everett Case of North Carolina State, “famous for treating his players like dogs,” but mentor to a phalanx of coaches for Duke, The Citadel, Florida, North Carolina State, etc. “He made his teams feared in the ACC, and his boys went after you with everything they had.  Everett Case exemplified a certain philosophy of coaching whereby a team of young players could be molded into greatness by the use of fear and intimidation.  Case dismissed out of hand the softer ways of the lesser breed of coaches.  Mel Thompson adored Coach Case and brought that philosophy to his job at The Citadel.”  It was a style of play that worked for a short period in regional play, but it was not a formula for national or global greatness.  It is obsolete now.   

My Losing Season is about a tough, long fight against great teams weighed down by a divisive and abusive coach.  A somewhat twisted and unhappy man, Thompson melted off to Indiana, and was not much heard about again.  He was not destined to help people become bigger than they appeared.  He cut people down.  Conroy played his best only when he came to ignore Thompson, one of the many lessons he learned in this chapter of his life.

Today in professional sports we often see the best financed teams falter before squads that are paid 80% less.  Just a season or two back, the miraculous Minnesota Wild (www.wild.com) played their hearts out in the National Hockey League.  Most recently, Lou Pinella’s Devil Rays from Tampa Bay have been upsetting the Yankees in game after game, the reason why the Yanks are in a tie with the Red Sox in the American League East.  “Sweet Lou” Pinella, given to temper tantrums, is the most ejected manager in baseball, but he has shown he knows how to do a lot with a little (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lou_Pinella).  The top-paid teams have no unity, have the wrong attitude.  Bad sportsmanship, if you like, squanders superb resources.  It is extraordinary to think how subtractive a flawed leader can be, with the power to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.   In turn it is a marvel to see a coach make the most out of talent that the big teams have passed over. 

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game lays out how General Manager Billy Beane has used statistics and intellect to put together winning ball clubs at the Oakland Athletics.  Similar systems for measuring value have buttressed the Red Sox under the guidance of GM Theo Epstein.  They have proven that there’s a lot to be had in the dregs of the wine bottle.  This is all part of a tendency of the new breed of managers to get very much more out of limited resources.  Increasingly, we will be using mathematics in several fields of activity to marshal what we need in an environment where the options are constantly changing.   

Death Comes to Maximillian.  Maximillian Adolph Otto Siegfried Schmeling passed away on February 2, 2005, just short of 100 years, all spent in ways of which he could be proud.  A German boxer, he knocked out the great Joe Louis in 1936, but Louis returned the favor in June 1938, lashing Max with his powerful right.  For accounts of Schmeling’s career, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Schmeling and www.journalcommunity.com/entry.php?EntryID=7890, and see as well “For Whom Boxing’s Bell Tolls,” Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2005, p. D9. 

Many thought of him as a Nazi, as he briefly became the toast of Germany, having lunch with Hitler and meeting on several occasions with Goebbels.  In fact, despite Nazi cajolery, he refused to join the Party.  On the night of Kristallnacht he harbored the sons of his good friend David Lewin, Werner and Henry, in his apartment in Berlin’s Excelsior Hotel at great risk to himself. Henry went on to become a major hotel owner in the United States and credits his life to Schmeling.  Hitler eventually became angry at his refusal to join the Nazis, had him drafted into the paratroops, and continuously sent him on missions where he was expected to die.  He always returned and was eventually invalided out of the service after he sustained injuries in Crete that were treated by a British doctor. 

Broke after the war, he returned to the ring 5 times, fought badly, but saved enough to buy a Coca Cola franchise.  As it turns out, a former boxing commissioner had become a Coke executive and did Schmeling a favor.  Eventually wealthy, he became a substantial philanthropist.  He and Louis kindled a friendship that began in 1954 meeting, and he gave several handouts to his old adversary.  As well, he paid the funeral costs when Louis died.  Prince Max formed a bond with the adversary who had flattened him before 70,000 people at Yankee Stadium in 1938.  In the larger scheme of things, we could even say Schmeling never really got knocked out.  He always got back up off the canvas a year, or several years, later.  (See http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=262479.)  Before death, he said, “I had a happy marriage and a nice wife. I accomplished everything you can.  What more can you want.” 

Is the essence of sportsmanship a graciousness of spirit that allows one to treat one’s antagonists as comrades?  Then it’s the sportsman’s ethic we need in these times where no company nor nation command enough resources to complete the grand projects it now must undertake in a global economy.  In this context, your competitor today will probably be your partner tomorrow.  One must now use a very light hand: the collaborative leader employs the least amount of force possible to achieve any objective, conserving energy and resources for the tasks that lie ahead and, above all, leaving a reservoir of good feeling all around.  

End of the Line.  Apparently the need for a far different global management style is more than a matter of theoretical or academic interest.  Barry Lynn’s End of the Line:  The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation puts forth a very provocative thesis.  With just-in-time inventory controls, outsourcing of production, deregulation in Washington, a supply chain that stretches around the world, and the elimination of redundant, back-up systems and supplies within the corporation, our global corporations are stretched to the limit and vulnerable to the slightest disturbances in their global networks.  In their quest to cut costs, companies have gone beyond lean and become anorexic.  With increasing frequency, deliveries of oil, computer chips, and vital components suffer costly interruptions.  A collaborative spirit probably will become the grease that keeps a creaky system from grinding to a halt.  And we will be measuring the value of companies by the resiliency they show in the midst of breakdowns.  See www.randomhouse.com/doubleday/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780385510240 and www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=Bio&contactID=430.  Read an excerpt at www.usatoday.com/money/books/reviews/2005-08-26-end-of-line-excerpt_x.htm.

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