Monday, February 02, 2015

Against Rock Stars

This summer, I went to a Cleveland Indians game which involved a pregame celebration for Johnny "Johnny Football" Manziel. [Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Boston sports fan living in Cleveland. Although I sometimes go to the Jake just to watch the Indians, I was there that night because my Red Sox were in town.] Everybody in the building seemed to be deliriously excited about Johnny Football. Everybody was making his little money-fingers gesture. Between the Browns drafting Manziel in the first round and Lebron James returning to the Cavaliers, Cleveland sports fans were feeling that suddenly the wheel had turned in their favor. I heard people say, without irony, "Cleveland is looking like the place to be." I heard people say, completely seriously, that this would "turn Cleveland's economy around."

Yesterday was the Superbowl. The Browns came nowhere near it. The new-look Lebron Cavaliers are in the middle of the playoff pack, not doing as well as the old-look Lebron Cavs used to do. While Johnny Football self-destructed (and helped take the end of the Browns' season with him), the Superbowl featured a quarterback drafted in the 3rd round and one drafted in the 6th round. It was won in the last minute by a rookie who hadn't been drafted at all. Today Johnny Football's handlers announced that he was going into rehab.

I don't want to pile onto poor Manziel just when he's decided to get help. In fact, the news of his alcoholism makes a lot of his frustrating behavior this season understandable. The poor preparation, the lack of discipline, the inability to learn the playbook, all turn out to have come from a bottle, which is sad. And there's a strong argument to be made that Manziel doesn't have the necessary skills to start in the NFL anyway, that he's one of those college standouts who aren't cut out for the pros. What's more interesting is Cleveland's desperately eager embrace of him before it all fell apart. That includes the Browns front office, who seem to have pressured the coaching staff to play Johnny, and the star-struck Cleveland fans, who explicitly pride themselves on their down-to-earth blue-collar values.

The starting quarterback for most of the Browns' season (because Johnny didn't work hard enough to win the starting job in camp and never really learned the playbook), was a guy named Brian Hoyer -- possibly the most Cleveland pro quarterback humanly possible. Not only is Hoyer a Cleveland native (who once played for local high school powerhouse St. Ignatius), but he embodies all of the virtues that Cleveland holds dear. He's an unflashy but hard-working and dependable player, all careful preparation and team effort. And, not for nothing, he won the Cleveland Browns every single game they won this year.

But to hell with that, apparently. Johnny Football is a rock star. He has endorsement deals. He has a Heisman Trophy. He hangs out with celebrities. And he was treated, by fans and Browns executives alike, as a person who could turn the entire franchise around with his star power. He has yet to throw a single touchdown in the pros. But he has been intercepted twice.

What the Johnny Football story illustrates is the danger of believing in rock stars. There's a deep need to believe in a single exciting individual who will turn an entire complicated enterprise - a company, a sports franchise, a political party, a Rust Belt city - around single-handedly through his (almost always his) personal charisma and specialness. But that's a fantasy. The heroes we look up to, whether as quarterbacks or CEOS, are leaders of talented, hard-working, and highly focused teams. The rock stars who believe their own hype and go it alone, thinking they can make things happen by sheer force of will, become disastrous failures. That's ugly on an athletic field. It's much uglier when a company or a city are on the line.

The Johnny Football experiment has set the Browns back as an organization, costing them their offensive coordinator and making it hard to see how the Browns can hire a talented replacement. They have been set back by at least two or three years. Talent does matter, but never simply one person's talent. Letting one star or self-described genius drive off the rest of your good people is a disaster. Tom Brady is a talented quarterback, but he only got his fourth Superbowl ring because an undrafted rookie from a Division II college diligently watched a lot of Seahawks game film and then made an inspired play.

Meanwhile LeBron James, who is certainly a tested and reliable NBA star, turns out not to be able to will the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship through his sheer personal gifts. This is treated as a surprise. But why? Lebron James could not will the Cavaliers to a championship by himself last time. Why would this time be different? Lebron originally left for Miami because he knew he needed to join with other stars in order to win it all, and this turned out to be correct. Lebron in his second solo career turns out to be exactly like the old version of Lebron, but less so.

(And Cleveland's downtown is struggling toward a revival, but that struggle began well before Lebron came back and is about complicated, unsexy things like tax credits for rehabilitating historic buildings. The last time Lebron was here downtown was in decline and his magical influence didn't do a damn thing about that. It turns out having a future basketball Hall of Famer playing at the Q isn't a big deal for your urban revival. Finally getting a supermarket on East Ninth Street is a much bigger deal.)

The belief in rock stars is ultimately about avoiding thinking about complicated problems. It allows you to put all your faith and hope in a person rather than thinking through a plan. We see it in sports, but also in politics and business and the arts. It's pervasive, but fundamentally childish, because it's about abdicating your own responsibilities and putting all your faith in the Dear Leader. There seems to be a deep and widespread human need to believe that someone else is fundamentally superior to us. If that were only neurotic, it would be bad enough. But it's worse because it's inaccurate. Those fundamentally superior people, better than ordinary mortals, aren't really out there.

People love rock stars. People long to find a rock star to lead them. But leader who actually believes himself to be a rock star is the worst thing that can happen to an organization. The only thing you can really count on a rock star to do is trash the place.

cross-posted, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

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