Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

Two coaches.  Two press conferences. Two sets of consequences.

One was fired for a failure to be honest.  The other was suspended for being too honest.

The ordeals of Bobby Petrino and Ozzie Guillen reveal an inherent ambiguity within 21st-century sports culture between the ideal and the practice of leadership.

Consider the two headlines from April 10, 2012:

First, the University of Arkansas fired football coach Bobby Petrino on Tuesday because of a failure to disclose the full details of an April 1st motorcycle wreck. At first, Petrino said he was alone in the wreck. And by alone, he meant riding with one passenger. Oh, and the passenger was female.  And was a newly hired football employee. Yes…and also his mistress.

Athletic director Jeff Long hired Petrino knowing his reputation for deceit:

  • Petrino left the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons midseason in an unceremonious manner.
  • He left The University of Louisville football team for the Falcons in a similar fashion.
  • He had at least two secret meetings with Auburn and LSU while still under contract with Louisville.

In the end, Long admitted that Coach Petrino displayed a “pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior to deceive” and this recent “decision to mislead the public, adversely affected the university and the football program.”  Hired for his pedigree, Petrino’s personal life finally overshadowed his winning ways.

Second, that same day, manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended five games by the Miami Marlins for the opposite reason–Guillen was too honest about his personal life.  In an interview with Time Magazine, Guillen was asked to list who he perceived as the toughest men on the planet.  He responded saying:

I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that [expletive] is still here.

With this sound byte, Ozzie failed to consider his morning commute, past the Cuban restaurants and bodegas on his way to the ballpark recently built in Little Havana.  However, one must ask the question: Isn’t Ozzie Guillen also the same manager who:

Why was he hired in the first place?  The answer: because Ozzie is a winner.

Conduct Detrimental To The Team

The phrase Conduct Detrimental To The Team has made its way into players’ contracts in recent years as a means of protecting leadership from a spectrum of potentially damaging behavior. The clause is part obscenity law (I’ll know it when I see it) and part trump card for athletic directors and management groups.  It is the vague clause-logic used:

  • By the University of Miami Women’s hoops team in suspending forward “Bay Bay” Williams.
  • To indefinitely suspend between the Dallas Mavericks and Khloe Kardashian’s husband.
  • To suspend newly acquired WR Brandon Marshall from the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

But players are different than coaches, right?  So, what happens when a coach makes a personal mistake?

This is ultimately where the Guillen and Petrino cases align.  They highlight the ambiguous threshold associated with sports leadership in America.  In theory, because leaders have a disproportionate level of influence over the whole of the team, they bare a disproportionate measure of burden for setting the tone for team direction and structure.  When individual players fail to take care of personal business, it affects the team chemistry.  When leaders fail to take care of their personal business, it taints the very structure of the organization that the players work within.

In practice, however, winners get more leeway in their personal lives–that’s why Arkansas and Miami hired Petrino and Guillen in the first place.  Because of their professional records they were given the opportunity to succeed.  Because of their personal records, they both ultimately failed.  Perhaps this increased number of moral failures by coaches will swing the leadership expectations pendulum back towards the ideal.