Any sports fan knows that overcoming your favorite team losing is a process that usually begins with shock and anger, followed by denial and despair, and concludes with acceptance. But before acceptance is reached, there tends to be another stage, one in which most fans and pundits partake but often overlook—blame. It’s a phenomenon most easily described as the “blame game,” and it can be seen throughout the sporting world at most levels of play. The usual suspects when it comes to the blame game are the players, coaches, and general managers or owners. While it’s often impossible to distinguish who exactly is responsible for a loss, somebody (or a few somebodies) must be held accountable. But who?
My colleague Ryan Young’s recent column “Tame the blame game” aptly described what has become an industry standard in sports of scapegoating. He notes blame-game personages, including Alex Rodriguez, Tom Glavine, Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and, of course, our own Norries Wilson. But why do so many fans and pundits feel the need to place the blame on a few for the fault of many? And, most importantly, do they even get the right guy?
It’s October, which means three things: Halloween, midterms, and playoff baseball. Well, not if you’re the Boston Red Sox, whose historic September collapse cost them a playoff spot and Terry Francona, their manager of eight seasons. In first place in the American League East at 83-52—one game ahead of the eventual division champion Yankees and nine in front of the Rays—the Sox entered September with the playoffs all but clinched. The question wasn’t if they would make the postseason, but how deep they would go. They could easily afford to go .500 for the month, or even a few games under, but they instead slumped to 7-20, practically begging the Rays to take their wild-card spot, which Tampa Bay happily obliged.
Red Sox Nation, after many tantrums and tears, wanted answers. What went wrong? Who was to blame for the downfall? What would the Sox do to fix it? The solution: part with manager Terry Francona. If any single person took the fall for the entire Red Sox organization, it was Francona, but was he truly culpable for his team’s collapse, or just the easy scapegoat for much larger problems? History sides with the latter. I don’t believe that Francona should be absolved of any responsibility for the late-season collapse, but the realities on the ground point to larger problems. I’m referring to a slew of freak, minor injuries that kept key players like David Ortiz (back spasms from an airplane), Josh Beckett (sore ankle from tripping over bullpen mound), and Adrian Gonzalez (calf tightness from rounding the bases after a homerun) out of the lineup down the home stretch. I’m also referring to numerous reported clubhouse issues resulting from too many self-centered, overpaid players putting themselves before the team. As manager, it was Francona’s job to resolve minor clubhouse issues, but if you want to blame him, you must also blame general manager Theo Epstein. Wait, now I’m playing the blame game too…
Anyway, as Mr. Young explained in his column, football head coach Norries Wilson is the biggest loser of the blame game at Columbia. Calls to fire Coach Wilson have been around for years now. The Spec editorial board even weighed in and called for his job last year. In a rebuttal column, I agreed that a new head coach was a step in the right direction, but cited countless instances of players failing to get the job done on the field. Wilson calls the plays, but it’s the team’s job to execute, and Columbia’s job to recruit competent players. Now that the team has dropped to 0-3, expect a new wave of “Fire Norries” articles (my colleague Myles Simmons published one just last week).
So what do Columbia athletes make of the blame game phenomenon? Baseball team captain and starting pitcher Pat Lowery explained to me over e-mail that “blame on an individual is human nature as a fan, but I also think the true measure of a player or coach is how they bounce back from the strikeout, or the error, or the losing season.”
Lowery attributes the blame game in professional sports primarily to large team payrolls, but cites an equally shared responsibility of players, managers, general managers, and team owners as the recipe for success. He believes the phenomenon “exists to some degree in collegiate sports, though it would be difficult to observe in four years as a college athlete, especially in a conference as balanced as the Ivy League.”
I’m not from Boston, and I’m not a Red Sox fan, but as a Chicago sports fan, I know a thing or two about coping with losing. And as someone who believes that criticism should be backed by rationale, I think Terry Francona did not deserve to lose his job—at least not before Theo Epstein or some of the players. There is almost always a winner and a loser in every sport, but the blame game has only losers. It takes a team effort to succeed and a team effort to fail. The buck doesn’t stop at a single player or coach, but everyone who plays a role in a team organization.
Michael Shapiro is a List College senior majoring in history and modern Jewish studies.