Addressing the American game’s misconstrued idea of leadership

Addressing the American game’s misconstrued idea of leadership

If you’ve been following along in American soccer these past few weeks, you’ve probably seen a few stories about Richie Burke – DC United’s former under-23 PDL coach – who was recently hired by the Washington Spirit, a struggling NWSL team. Since the Spirit hired Burke, countless allegations have been made against the coach, generally describing him as a serial verbal abuser, bully and all-around bad guy. Stephanie Yang’s fantastic article on Black and Red United accounts a lot of these charges, using the testimony of a former player. 

The player told Black and Red United that Burke would be complementary with the players he liked, or the ones who were performing well, but would “snap” and “go on these tirades” with anyone who made a mistake. The player said that if he wasn’t being aggressive enough for Burke’s standards, then Burke would tell him to “man up” and “stop being a pussy.”

The insults didn’t stop there: Burke also called the player “pathetic,” “a joke,” “moron,” and “a disgrace.” The player confirmed that Burke regularly and casually used homophobic language, specifically the f-word. “He used the word faggot multiple times,” the player said, elaborating that it was used both as an insult against players and in jokes Burke would make.

I’d encourage you to read the whole article, but in using just this paragraph alone, these allegations are relatively offensive. Even so, the exact specifics didn’t strike me as the worst part of the piece. By far, the most troubling aspect was how little they originally shocked me. And I don’t mean to say that Burke’s reported actions aren’t serious. It’s more that, as a player and coach in the United States, this sort of behaviour is so commonplace that many don’t even see it as abusive, instead defending these words and actions as somehow necessary in the development as players. 

All at once while reading this, I thought of all of the coaches I knew growing up that easily surpassed Burke’s reported levels of abuse. And I really want to emphasise that I don’t write these criticisms to address specific examples. I don’t know Burke, and in my case, view all of my former coaches as tolerable people.

It’s more that, in general, this sort of attitude is so ingrained in our game that it’s hard to recognise something as unacceptable when turning players against one another, or calling teenagers “soft”, “pussies”, or “mentally weak”, is one of the few conventions that you can come to expect in an American coach. 

Yet, like Burke, all of the coaches that this piece reminded me of hold positions of power in the country. They speak about “character” and “developing men” at regional and US Soccer conventions. People listen, take notes, and applaud these empty words. They influence state organisations; send players to professional teams; train, judge and no doubt inspire the next generation of coaches to carry on the same thoughts, ideas, and language that they were taught as athletes. 

Read  |  How a culture of producing athletes and accepting mediocrity turned me off the US game

This is the true heart of the issue. As a country, we’ve internalised development and success with toxicity and an apotheosised survival of the fittest-esque version of prosperity. Even worse, we allow it to flourish under the banner of “winning” as if the two were somehow mutually exclusive. 

It’s not just a problem endemic to sports. Even at our highest levels of power, people still defend our president, an accused rapist, confirmed racist, serial liar, and all-around awful man under this idea that he “gets results”. Even if that were true – and the facts declare it’s not – imagine being the kind of person who excuses the devaluation and destruction of entire populations just to pay marginally less in taxes. Yet, we see these arguments every day in the country as if they were somehow legitimate. 

Has our level of guidance has become so skewed that empathy, kindness, intelligence and unity have now become signs of weakness?

Jacobin’s Meagan Day wrote a fantastic article that I often think about regarding this idea. The topic was participation trophies: by and large, the greatest proxy subject of the past ten years (other than José Mourinho/Jordan Peterson) for uncovering if someone is the absolute worst. Instead of focusing the argument for trophies on self-esteem or child development, two important aspects of competition, Day shifted the discussion into the realm of ideology,

The notion that some people naturally have to lose everything in order to make high achievement possible is fiction. All people deserve a decent and dignified life, for no other reason than because they are human beings. It’s completely possible for society to give it to them. That’s not a threat to individual accomplishment – it’s a precondition of individual flourishment for the majority of people. Beyond allegory, we want actual kids growing up to believe that prosperity is not a zero-sum game. It’s possible that participation trophies bring us a tiny bit closer to that vision.

While I’d recommend everyone to read the piece, Day makes a great point on athletic development as a whole. Individual accomplishment is not a contest where someone has to be degraded in order for others to find self-worth. Athletic development has never been, and will never be, a zero-sum game. Yet, all too frequently, we see coaches attempt to produce players by making the consequences of failure )losing the ball, missing a shot) humiliating enough that some athletes feel the need to drop out of the sport entirely. 

This is not leadership. More importantly, it’s simply not acceptable from someone in a position of power. Not only is it possible to incentivise players to work hard and compete purely for the sake of enjoyment, from a strictly numeric perspective, think about the sheer masse of players that are impeded, or even lost to abusive coaches every year. So if you want to join the masse of idiots defending toxic leaders, go for it. Just remember, getting rid of them isn’t ruining the game. You are.

By Ryan Huettel @ryanhuettel2

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