Sports provide a case study in what happens when we prioritise ourselves—or the teamby Benjamin Markovits / March 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
There’s an old joke that sometimes gets attributed to Michael Jordan. A coach pulls him aside to tell him he’s playing selfishly. “There is no I in team,” the coach says. Jordan shoots back: “But there is a me.”
Teams are funny things. For Liverpool’s recent FA Cup tie with Wolverhampton Wanderers, their manager Jürgen Klopp rested their star striker, Mo Salah. At halftime the score was one nil to Wolves, and one of the commentators wondered what Salah must be thinking. Come on, lads, finish the job, so I don’t have to… Back in the studio, Gary Lineker admitted that in his playing days he hoped his own team wouldn’t score, so he could come on and play the hero. (Klopp brought Salah on in the 70th minute, but Liverpool lost anyway, 2-1.)
Lineker was laughing when he said it, but you get the feeling he was more than a little serious. Athletes become athletes because they are relentlessly competitive people. And the people they compete against most, day in, day out—for money, for stats, for playing time—are their teammates. It’s easy to play against your opponents—you don’t have to face them on Monday morning and go through the motions again. The old line, “There is something in the misfortune of our friends that does not displease us,” applies particularly to teammates. And the corollary is also true: sometimes their successes irk.
Coaches like to talk about “playing for the team” or even “playing for the shirt” (whatever that means) as if it were some kind of profound moral virtue. It’s obviously true that great teams are great because players sacrifice themselves to the collective. But it’s also true that it’s in the coach’s interest for them to make that sacrifice. It’s not his sacrifice, it costs him nothing. When he preaches teamsmanship, he’s really preaching his own self-interest.
The selfish drive may be perennial but it varies from sport to sport, and from era to era. Cricket and baseball famously involve a lot of one-on-one encounters. Parts of these games function basically like tennis, where selfishness is not just acceptable but the only option. Football, on the other hand, demands a certain amount of selflessness—that’s the aesthetic. Even ball-dominant stars like Ronaldo rely on constant interplays with their teammates; everybody has to run for everybody else. Maybe certain sports attract people with certain virtues, or maybe the virtues themselves are developed by the sports, I don’t know. By virtues I mean stuff like selflessness, hustle, competitive drive—the stuff your coaches praise you for. But they’re all code for different kinds of efficiency.
In a basketball team, there are usually one or two players whose roles are so central to the outcome that winning and losing is a measure of how good they are. Consequently it really matters to them to win—they care about the team because it reflects on them. But there are also a lot of guys getting 10 minutes a game, taking a couple of shots, grabbing a few rebounds, sitting back down, waiting for the stars to take over. Would those guys rather score 30 and lose, or two and win? Their next contract, their self-interest, is often better served by scoring 30.
What’s interesting now is that computer analytics is changing some of the maths of selflessness. In basketball, for example, players used to get paid according to some pretty basic stats, like points scored. So they wanted to score a lot of points. But these days clubs care increasingly about meta-stats like efficiency or what they call “real plus minus”—an adjusted measure of points for versus points against when a certain player is on the floor. In other words, they’ve found a way to measure selflessness and reward it. In which case, it starts to look a little less like selflessness.