One of the things I hate most about sports are the egos. The chest-thumping. The “look at how awesome I am.” Egos are inherently a part of sports, though. To be successful, you have to believe to some degree that you are better than the other guy. If you go in thinking you suck, you don’t stand a chance. I get that. I accept it.
But ego occurs in different magnitudes in different athletes. There are those athletes who beat their chest and praise themselves at every opportunity, while there are those athletes who deflect attention from themselves and onto their teammates and coaches at every opportunity. (We claim to like the latter, but it’s usually the former who end up getting the attention and the money. Whatever.)
Even if you profess to hate ego, some amount of it should be allowed, even encouraged. If you just hit a game-winner, you should be allowed to talk about it. If you just scored 11 points in 28 seconds, talk about it! Beat your chest! And throw a nice little wink at the camera for good measure! (Okay, so I kind of have a thing for Paul Millsap. Who doesn’t?)
The question is, where is the proper balance? If you play lights-out, you obviously deserve some credit for what you just did, but if you play a team sport, you didn’t do it alone. (This is perhaps the sports version of “you didn’t build that!”) Whether you realize it or not, your teammates were instrumental to your success. Millsap scored 11 points in 28 seconds, yes. But he doesn’t do that without Deron Williams giving him the ball in the right places. Hell, he doesn’t even do it without everyone spacing the floor on the last-second three-point miss by C.J. Miles, giving Millsap a clear lane to the offensive rebound and putback. I don’t remember Millsap’s postgame interviews after the Miracle in Miami, but I hope he gave credit to his teammates along with taking a decent portion of the credit for himself.
This contrast between egotism and team spirit was perhaps most stark following the United States women’s soccer team’s gold medal win at the 2012 London Olympics. In case you missed it (and don’t admit to me that you missed it because then we can’t be friends anymore), the U.S. avenged their loss in last summer’s Women’s World Cup final by beating Japan 2-1 in the gold medal match. Both U.S. goals — the first, a running header; the second, a long-range laser into the side netting — were scored by midfielder Carli Lloyd, who had lost her starting spot prior to the Olympics but was pressed into action due to a teammate’s injury in the U.S.’s opening match against France. She responded to the benching and subsequent reinsertion into the lineup magnificently, scoring a total of four goals in the six-game tournament, good for second on the team behind only Abby Wambach (five). And her two goals in the final were huge — they gave the U.S. a 2-0 lead that Hope Solo was able to preserve with several incredible saves, leading the U.S. back to their familiar spot on top of the Olympic podium. (U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!)
After a performance like that, naturally you’d expect Lloyd to give herself a good deal of credit. And a good deal of credit was deserved. After all, this marked the second straight Olympic gold medal final in which she had scored the winning goal (she tallied the lone U.S. goal in a 1-0 overtime win against Brazil in the 2008 final as well). And who doesn’t love a story about someone working their tail off to come off the bench and prove they belong out there? Heck, that’s one of the reasons why I love Paul Millsap so much.
So I was prepared to forgive a few self-centered quotes in the postgame, even though really, you could let your teammates and the media write that story for you. And they would have written it for you. Hope Solo was effusive about Lloyd’s performance. Abby Wambach said complimentary things. Head coach Pia Sundhage cheerfully admitted that Lloyd had proved her wrong. The media is generally good about giving credit where it’s due, and Lloyd’s performance was one of those that couldn’t be ignored. That story would have been written on its own.
Perhaps, then, the best thing Carli Lloyd could have done was take some credit, but deflect the rest. Show a little (or a lot of) humility. Say, “yeah, I’m really happy about my performance today, and throughout these Games, but this was a team effort.” Admit that, had you not screamed in to head in the first goal against Japan in the final, Abby Wambach was right there to volley it in with her left foot. Admit that your second goal against Japan wouldn’t have been possible without Wambach drawing away a defender on the right and Alex Morgan doing the same on the left, leaving you a nice path down the center. Admit that, were it not for Shannon Boxx returning from injury to lock down the defensive midfield against Japan, you would not have had the freedom to bomb forward into the attack like that. Just admit one of those things. Any of them. Because they’re all true. They’re as true as any other statement you could make about your individual performance, if not more so.
But instead of saying any of those things, Carli Lloyd said these ones:
“If someone tells me I’m not good enough to start, I’m going to prove them wrong.”
“I was probably the most consistent player all tournament.”
“I’m the engine, and I do the dirty work.”
“I wanted to prove everybody wrong, that I’m a special player.”
“Flew by Abby, flew by everybody. I was just determined to get the goal in.”
“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I’m gonna always prove them wrong. That’s what a champion is all about. And that’s what I am, a champion.”
“I prepared harder than anyone. I don’t think there’s anybody that trains harder than I do.”
“I was ready for the moment. I took it game by game. I focused. I just kept on it every single day. Hard work pays off.”
“I wanted to make all those doubters out there wrong, and that’s what I did.”
Some of these quotes were perhaps handpicked by some of the journalists who wrote these stories to the exclusion of ones in which she talked more about the team (this was almost certainly the case with the column by Sally Jenkins in which the middle three quotes appear). And to her credit, she did have plenty of compliments for best buddy Hope Solo. But she offered up some of these “look at me” quotes all on her own, not really even in the context of the question (as was the case with some of the last four quotes from her NBC postgame interview).
Contrast this with Abby Wambach’s post-gold-medal interview:
“I’m so proud of this team for never giving up. Players who came on and started in this tournament — Carli Lloyd, she just had a great tournament; Hope Solo making big saves today. It was a team effort for this entire tournament, and it shows what it takes to win championships. It’s teamwork, and it’s loyalty, and it’s trusting and believing in each other.”
Admittedly, Wambach’s quote probably would have been slightly different had she scored the two goals that day. But even in those types of circumstances, when Wambach is the hero, she’s eager to praise her teammates and to talk about what a team effort it was. Take her interview immediately after last year’s Women’s World Cup quarterfinal win over Brazil, in which Wambach scored in the 122nd minute (“at the death”) to tie the game at 2-2 and send it to penalty kicks (which the U.S. won 5-3):
“I really don’t know what to say. I think that that [the entire game, not just her goal] is a perfect example of what this country is about, what the history of this team has always been — we never give up. We literally went to the last second, it seems. Hope, I mean how many penalties did she save legitimately today? We, uh…we never gave up. Brazil’s a great team. I just–I don’t really have many words for this, it’s unbelievable.”
“We believe that we can win this tournament. And it’s playing 10 men, coming back from a goal down in overtime, to then go to penalties. I don’t know if you could write a better script. We got a win!”
Even then, when she was the goal-scorer, the hero, the one who made Ian Darke shout “Oh, can you believe this! Abby Wambach has saved the USA’s life in this World Cup!,” she talked about the team — “this team,” “we,” “Hope,” “we…we…we…” That sentiment, that attitude, which seemed ubiquitous on the team last summer, was one of the many reasons why I (and so many others) fell in love with that team, and why I began following them almost as avidly as I follow the Jazz.
Where is the appropriate line? I’ll admit that I tend to like the athletes who are toward the extremely deferential end of things — take credit only when absolutely necessary, and praise your teammates and talk about the team as a whole all the other times. But that’s probably because I’m an extreme introvert and tend to like deflecting attention onto other people whenever possible. And I don’t want to deny someone their due — two goals in an Olympic gold medal match? Yeah, you deserve a hell of a lot of credit, so feel free to rain some of it down upon yourself.
But when nearly every other word out of your mouth is “I”; when you say things like “that’s what I am, a champion,” as if you don’t have 17 other teammates who are champions; when you say things like “I prepared harder than anyone. I don’t think there’s anybody that trains harder than I do,” as if you don’t have teammates who have played through injury, who have played with Lupus, who have worked to convert from attacking midfielder to outside back in the space of a few months, who are 37 with two kids and still play every single minute of the tournament — that’s where you cross the line from acceptable ego into egomaniac territory, in my opinion.
Back to Paul Millsap. After the Jazz beat the Thunder at EnergySolutions Arena last season in a game in which Paul Millsap hit the late dagger, Craig Bolerjack asked Millsap to put the win in perspective. His response?
“Our team is playing great, man, our bench is playing great … it’s a team effort. You know, it’s not just me, it’s not just Al or Devin, it’s a team effort.”
Then, when asked about how he’s become “Mr. Big Shot,” the guy who wants (and makes) the crucial shots down the stretch, he said,
“I do. You know, and I’ve got great teammates. Al Jefferson, the last play, it was supposed to go to him, but he turned it over to me. So, you know, that’s the type of teammates we have, that’s the type of team we have.”
(Source, with a few “you know”s omitted from the transcription)
And that’s the type of team and player I want to root for.
Thoughts? How much self-aggrandizement is too much in sports? Let me know what you think here or on Twitter (@shandonfan).