The Jerk Factor

Michael Jordan angry
Michael Jordan gently discusses an issue with the ref

By Marcus Shockley

If you haven’t heard about Mike Rice, the head coach of Rutgers men’s basketball team and his abuse of his players during practice, you can catch up with the video below. Needless to say, Mike Rice should be fired – under no circumstances is this acceptable behavior for anyone, child or adult. I would go so far as to say that the fact that the Athletic Director didn’t fire Rice immediately should be concern about the AD as well.

But one issue that this raises is that many sports pundits have taken to the idea that in order to be great in sports, either as a player or a coach, you have to be a megalomaniac, completely absorbed in your own desires and focused only on yourself, to the point of complete disregard for anyone else in any capacity.

The popular icon of this is Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, who also became one of the biggest egos of all time; it has become commonplace to refer to any dysfunctional or abusive behavior as ‘what is required’ in order to be legendary. Several players are said to have this ‘winning’ attitude: Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams have all been described in such terms.

But it’s not true.

There is a common phrase used in the field of statistics whenever a theory is introduced based on only a few variables: “Correlation does not imply causation”. To put this in plain English, just because you have a couple of examples of something occurring does not make it true for all cases, or even true in general.

There are some things that hold true; fierce competitiveness, focus and a strong discipline are all factors of every legendary player. Many pro players are stunted emotionally because as they’ve worked like mad at their sport, outside of sports they are handed many things for most of their life.

But there are plenty of examples of players who won – a lot – and weren’t crushing people with their ego along the way.

Jackie Robinson, the focus of a new movie about how he broke the color barrier in baseball, was such an example. Think Robinson wasn’t as great as Kobe? Consider that Jackie Robinson was so good that he forced racist business owners to completely change their beliefs; forced their hand because they would rather go against hundreds of years of cultural and societal taboos rather than pass on his talent.

But even today there are tons of examples of superstar athletes who aren’t preening egomaniacs – Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Roger Federer and Kelly Slater all have lengthy careers – all would be HOF or the equivalent in their sport – and none have the supposed burning self-love that is claimed to be a prerequisite to greatness.

Let us not forget how many jerks we run into, in all walks of life, every single day. People cut each other off in traffic; push ahead of each other in line at grocery stores; steal office supplies; start rumors about each other; cheat on their spouses. The vast majority of those people behave like jackasses a lot, some of them to the point of ruining their marriages and careers. Their behavior certainly doesn’t make them legendary.

The simple truth is this: if someone is a legendary player and behaves like a jackass, they are just a jerk who is also good at their sport. They are not great because they are a jerk. If being a jackass made people great, our world would be teeming with amazingly talented people on every street corner.

Go ahead an nod along, you know I’m right. There are plenty of untalented knuckleheads in the world.

So, let’s call it what it is when people have dysfunctional, anti-social behavior instead of dressing it up and dismissing it as a quality. Kobe Bryant is a great player, but he’s also a jackass. Michael Jordan was the greatest player, and he is also a jackass. Let’s not confuse the two.

And Mike Rice? Yeah, well, there’s really no question what he is.

Marcus Shockley is the founder of BasketballElite.com and a member of the US Basketball Writers Association. You can follow Marcus on Twitter right this second.

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