Bad Apples?

Great emphasis is placed on the bad things athletes do. Putting aside for a moment whether or not professional (or collegiate) athletes break the law at a greater rate than the average citizen (arguably, the visibility and high-stakes damage to competitive goals and reputation likely leave us with minimal tolerance for athletes doing bad things regardless of how they compare to the general population), the understanding most often targets the rule-or-law-breaking-athlete as a bad apple. Much of the attention goes into trying to understand which athletes have inferior character or broken moral compasses so that we can gather some insight into identifying these individuals, ostensibly to try to prevent a repeat of such a bad apple from finding it’s way, once again, into our future sports fruit basket.

First, your problem is partially solved by the mere removal of this individual. If Alex Rodriguez is caught using PEDs, we simply have to suspend or ban him from play and we have rid ourselves of that bad apple. If Ndamukong Suh, stomps on the head of an opponent during a game, we merely need to suspend and fine him and address that particular bad apple.

Second, the way to prevent is to seek to identify these bad apples as early as possible and decide whether or not the risk is worth taking. Certainly, the New England Patriots had some understanding of Aaron Hernandez’ questionable background, and made a calculated decision that the upside of his talents outweighed the risks of further (and greater) bad-apple behavior.

It is a very appealing framework to operate from. Every athlete will be replaced eventually but leagues, universities, teams, etc. will remain. There is understandable appeal in this interpretation – it keeps attribution clear and solutions contained to investigation and punishment. It also has some undeniable truth. There are some bad apples that simply should not be on your team. However, this is likely the exception and not the rule.

So often we see what one of my mentors, Larry Susskind, described as “Predictable Surprises.” We don’t know when or who the next bad apple will be but we know it is coming and we might even have a sense of what team is more likely to be affiliated with this future bad apple. We see certain teams that could be identified as bad apple factories. We seem quite comfortable with an emphasis focused on putting the right apples into the mix and hoping that will be enough.

The irony, of course, in all of this is that in sports we would never leave traditional sport skills predominantly to a selection problem. Certainly, we spend lots of time and energy identifying and recruiting the athletes with the most talent and recruit or draft heavily based on the perceived talent and potential for on-field success. We might even consider neck-up and off-field factors in this equation. But, most often we do not dedicate even a fraction of the resources to developing life skills, emotional competencies, conflict management skills, communication ability, and relationship skills as we do to the deliberate practice and repetition that we fully understand is needed to refine the inside-the-line talents. We practice shooting, passing, kicking, specific plays, etc. to work toward our 10,000 hours need for expertise. We do not rest on talent alone and know that those that do are likely to fail. We fully accept that responsibility often lies with the coach or organization if they fail to develop the athlete to realize that potential.

Arguably, the same diligence in creating structure and establishing deliberate practice for off-field competencies could go further toward meeting our zero-tolerance trend for bad behavior in sports than a model that emphasizes the individuals traits and behaviors alone. Even where we place emphasis on the individual, the more nuanced response is to adapt the structures, policies, and practices to address the identified risk – to better understand potential triggers and individual deficits with the goal toward preventing such behaviors.

A model that looks first at the organization’s role in assessing individual needs and developing a systemic approach toward building those skills in the same manner and focus as we do traditional sports skills has the potential to have significant impact on bad behavior. If we accept a role as bad apple factories, we can adjust how that factory operates and work toward eliminating the number of bad apples produced by that factory.

~ Joshua Gordon

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