Egotism, Women’s Soccer, and Paul Millsap — Trust Me, They’re Connected

August 13, 2012
By

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.”

(Source.)

“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.”

(Source.)

“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.”

(Source.)

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!”

(Source.)

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).

Tags: , ,

14 Responses to Egotism, Women’s Soccer, and Paul Millsap — Trust Me, They’re Connected

  1. Andy Larsen
    August 14, 2012 at 12:49 AM

    It’s interesting, I think that soccer is especially rife for these moments: after a goal is scored, the scorer has the limelight to his/herself in a way that is very rare in team sports. I wonder about the same egotism thing with regards to goal celebrations. In fact, quick breakdown of three types of goal celebrations:

    1. The “Let’s get back to work” non-celebration.
    Alvaro Saborio is brilliant at these. Check out this link, for example: http://youtu.be/B9PR-A6WXko?t=4m40s (also, find a noted Jazz blogger at 4:58!). Sabo rises up, hits an absolutely suburb header, and nonchalantly jogs back to high-five the captain and hug the assist man. He’s brilliant. The most famous celebration of this type is probably Eric Cantona’s (though he was not this type of person): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjQwIqkYDeo.

    2. The ecstatic celebration.
    Probably the most common type, “I just scored a goal and boy is it a rush!” is also probably the most fun. Donovan’s goal against Algeria (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALJu7YPMNBI) or Movsisyan’s goal in the MLS playoffs are good examples, IMO (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leZvzYLxurc).

    3. The Look At Me! celebration
    As you say, probably the most disappointing kind. Dwayne De Rosario’s check-writing celebration (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2010/writers/steve_davis/10/01/dp.dilemma/index.html), or pointing to the name on your back. Just kind of ruins the fun.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:15 AM

      (1) and (2) are certainly better than (3), that’s for sure. I love Sabo’s workmanlike approach to the game. I mean, even after that sensational back heel against Seattle, he just flapped his arms a bit, found the assister, and flashed a smile. Some creativity in goal celebrations can be good though, and even better when that creativity involves the entire team (teamwork yay!). Which is why category (4) is my absolute favorite type:

      4. The “Damn it, soccer is supposed to be fun, so let’s do The Worm at Old Trafford!” celebration.
      http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/soccer/u-s-women-defeat-north-korea-1-0-win-group.html . The women’s national team specializes in this type. Other examples include everyone doing cartwheels as a tribute to the USA gymnastics team, wishing an injured teammate Happy Birthday on a piece of tape you hid in your sock, singing “Born in the USA!” into one of those fuzzy field-side microphones with air-guitar accompaniment from your teammates, and lining up 11 across to salute military personnel in the crowd.

      There is a healthy element of “look at me!” in most of these Category 4 celebrations, to be sure, but the fact that they’re a team activity mitigates that to some extent.

  2. August 14, 2012 at 2:11 AM

    Lloyd’s post-game comments took me by surprise in the moment, too. It was equally jarring to hear Usain Bolt talk to the camera immediately after one of his wins and remind the world that he’s the best. (He made similar comments to the NYT here: http://nyti.ms/TBcPfS).

    Is it paternalistic for us to want athletes to not only perform to the absolute peak of their abilities at all times, but also to express themselves in ways that reflect our own interpretations of the values espoused by achievement in their sport? It’s definitely off-putting to hear megalomaniacal self-praise from an athlete. But, to reinterpret Todd Marinovich pushing back against criticism that he was throwing his life away, isn’t it the athlete’s life to throw away? We basically ask many of these athletes to give up their childhood (and often adulthood) in exchange for our entertainment. Perhaps that’s why we’re so surprised when one of the robots talks back.

    It’s impossible to talk about ego in sports without discussing Muhammad Ali. His brash comments were the antithesis of Muscular Christianity and anything embodied in the Wooden Way and irritated many who wanted their champion to behave “the right way.” Though he didn’t express himself as transparently, Michael Jordan’s runaway ego is the stuff of legend–without the personal conviction that guided Ali.

    There’s absolutely no question that few would endure the sacrifices required to be the best in any athletic field unless driven by an insatiable desire to get better or to win. Under the circumstances surrounding success, we should probably be more surprised to hear hopesolian tributes to team and less surprised at carlilloydian paeans to self.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:27 AM

      I do think expecting perfection from our athletes not just in their performance on the field or court, but then also in their comments off the field, is asking far too much. They are human (sometimes superhuman, but still human), prone to the same emotions and shortcomings we “ordinary folk” have. And I do think that being a professional athlete, competing at the absolute highest level of your sport, both requires and creates a different mentality in these athletes. So perhaps we should shift the bar a little — expect comments of the type Carli Lloyd and Usain Bolt made, expect the egos of Jordan and Ali, and instead of chastising them, simply praise those athletes who manage to somehow shelve those egos.

  3. modernagejazz
    August 14, 2012 at 9:09 AM

    Nice post. :) I’ll say this, though. We have a habit of wanting our sports players to also be perfect people. But the truth is one of the biggest chalenges in team sports is precisely to make conflicting personalities work together for the best for the team.

    Of course, us fans, looking from the outside, project on the athletes our own vision of what a better world would be. But from the inside, people are just people and they share some of the traits people you don’t like at work, school or neighborhood have.

    So I guess what I’m saying is this: when athletes express alienating traits like complete egotism, perhaps we should praise their teammates for their ability to cooperate and extract the most out of this guy, in spite of what he does and says.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:32 AM

      Great points, particularly regarding the ability of a team to corral different personalities and make it work. Certainly every team is going to have some players with bigger egos than others, and perhaps you need a wide range of egos to be successful. Someone needs to have the confidence and ego to put the entire team on their shoulders at times as much as someone needs to have the selfless attitude required to help and allow their teammates to shine.

  4. August 14, 2012 at 11:11 AM

    A wonderful post and I’m glad I’m not the only one who cringed when hearing Carli’s comments. I was in denial about her comments so I could enjoy the victory. Abby has always been a wonderful example of leadership and I’m not surprised that SLCC recognized that and asked her to be the commencement speaker this past spring. If I had known she was going to speak in advance, I would have pretended to be a SLCC student and have gone just to listen. I don’t remember Paul’s post Miami comments because I was too delirious at the time but I definitely remember him choking up saying how Big Al told our brilliant coach to give it to Paul.

    Finally, I’m going to say for the upteenth time, you are wasting your talents on being a lawyer. You should be a professional sportswriter/video maker. In other words, take over the Trib Jazz beat or, at a minimum, a columnist position, please.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:34 AM

      Thanks Max!

      I am constantly amazed by Abby Wambach’s attitude and comments. Having just started following this team in earnest last summer, I don’t know what she was like she was when she was younger and an even more prolific scorer — she may have been more brash and cocky — but in the last year, virtually everything I’ve heard her say in interviews is pure class. It’s truly remarkable.

  5. August 14, 2012 at 12:37 PM

    I think my answer to Spencer’s query about the nature of our imposed expectations on athletes is that as much as its Todd Marinovich’s and Carli Lloyd’s right to say whatever they want and to use their talents in whatever way they choose, it’s my right and Shandonfan’s right to not like them according to our perhaps arbitrary criteria. I approaching sports fandom in the way I would approach reading a book, which is that while its the privilege of the author to create the reality of the novel, it’s my privilege to react to it in the way that I choose, which is why I can still dislike Hagrid despite J.K. Rowling’s many well-intentioned attempts to present a reality in which he’s very likable. In the same way, every time someone writes something on the intrawebs, it’s the privilege of the readers to leave pedantic comments that steer the conversation away from sports and toward Harry Potter.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:39 AM

      I love everything about this comment, but the Harry Potter analogy is what makes it legendary. Were we supposed to love Hagrid? Because I liked him fine, but I wasn’t all broken up about it when (***spoiler alert!***) he was carried off by those giant spider thingies in Book 7 and presumed to be dead. I was like, “meh, Hagrid was cool I guess, but how ironic and hilarious would it be if he were killed by the very creatures he helped spawn by raising Aragog?”

  6. August 14, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    It’s very chic these days to mock fans.

    To psychoanalyze the masses, to get all intellectual and mocking about the way the small-minded want athletes to be good people, to try to frame it as a silly mysticism that attempts to link good character with good performances.

    It’s all bullshit.

    We just want people to be good people. At least I do. I want my doctors to appreciate the work of their nurses. I like that my principal can be appreciative of the 17-year-old kids working as part-time janitors in my school. I feel hope for humanity when a teacher gives half of his $10,000 Teacher-of-the-Year award to another teacher because they really worked together the entire time.

    I hope my kids can be appreciative and grateful for others.

    And so, yes, I also hope my athletic heroes can see something besides just themselves. And if they can’t … well, then I’m not interested in them. Because we can find those that are.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 10:43 AM

      “I also hope my athletic heroes can see something besides just themselves. And if they can’t … well, then I’m not interested in them. Because we can find those that are.”

      Very well put. Clearly, there are plenty of examples of athletes out there who either don’t have giant egos, or at least hide them incredibly well. All else being equal, I’m gonna root for those athletes over the other types.

  7. Ashley
    August 15, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    What Carli said was very off-putting true, but at the same time I fully understand it. Not only did she come off the bench and play phenomenally, she had to endure more criticism than any other player after the World Cup deserved or not. That changes a persons mentality, when a team loses, but only 1 or 2 become the scapegoats. To be fair though, she gave numerous interviews in which she gave her team plenty of credit, check fox and MSN. She wasn’t all about her in every single interview sir. Not to mention, she had the game winning goal in the comeback against France and she deflected everything off of her to the resilience of the team. As for me, I truly don’t care what a player says in an interview, as a fan of a team, I’m one of those that wants to win, what a player wajts to say before or after matters not to me.

    • Elizabeth Vayo
      August 15, 2012 at 11:04 AM

      These are great points, particularly your point about the criticism she received after the World Cup. The amount of grief she has received for her PK in the final is incredible, especially considering she wasn’t the only one who failed to convert in that shootout. Tobin Heath’s attempt was comically weak, Shannon Boxx’s was poorly placed and predictable, but let’s everybody joke about DirecTV being out because Carli Lloyd’s PK finally hit a satellite!

      After that amount of criticism, in addition to the benching, I suppose her comments were totally understandable. She did have a lot of doubters (myself among them), and she did prove them to be spectacularly wrong.

      Her comments after the France game were much better, certainly. And at least the second half of her Fox Sports interview was admirable (the first half did include a lot of the same off-putting “I” talk that her NBC interview did). I didn’t see that Fox interview until after I had posted this, but it certainly deserves mention to present a fairer picture: http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/lloyd-on-london-gold/120iycyi?from=

      And I completely understand and respect your point of view concerning the importance (if any) of pre- and post-game comments. I personally love sports not just for the athletic performances on the field, but for the stories (including the personalities) off the field, so what athletes say and how they carry themselves when they’re not competing is important to me, sometimes as important as what they actually do in games. But I can see your side of this as well.

      Also worth mentioning is that perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge someone too harshly for what they say in a circumstance like this, where they’re on the incredible emotional high that comes from winning a gold medal, especially considering everything the team (and they personally) had gone through over the previous 13 months. From beating Brazil and bursting onto the national scene to the devastation of losing the World Cup final, to losing an important teammate to injury at Olympic qualifying, to lineup changes, to falling into a 2-0 hole in the first 15 minutes of the Olympic tournament, to the crazy, epic roller-coaster that was the USA-Canada semifinal, to then finally beating Japan and getting to the top of that podium — if you stuck a microphone in my face immediately after I had gone through all that, I doubt I would have even been able to string a coherent sentence together, much less one that struck the appropriate balance between self-praise and praise of the team.