During the slow death march that concluded Andy Reid's long career in Philadelphia this fall and winter, something interesting happened: Despite my sports fanaticism, I found myself not caring about the actual games - how many times did I have to watch an overpaid cornerback amble after a fleeing receiver? - but eagerly awaiting the coach's postgame news conferences. After each debacle, the stoic, tight-lipped coach would trudge to the podium and mouth the same platitudes, for which he would be pilloried in the media.
Now that the end has mercifully come for Reid, I think I understand why I was so drawn to the postgame theater. It has to do with why I watch sports in the first place.
My passion for Philly sports goes way back: In junior high, I broke the screen of my black-and-white TV when the Sixers' George McGinnis decided not to show up for the 1977 Finals. More recently, I entered a deep funk when the Phils' magical 2011 season ended in early, unanticipated calamity at the hands of the freakin' Cardinals.
But in my most reflective moments, I have to admit that Jerry Seinfeld was right when he posited that sports fanaticism is silly. After all, the athletes we root for are seldom from the cities they represent; they just wear the uniform. "You're rooting for clothes when you get right down to it," the comedian observed. "We're screaming about laundry here."
Something other than the actual games keeps us engaged, and it's what kept me tuning into Reid's news conferences. What's truly addictive about sports is their capacity to reveal character in those moments when otherwise flawed athletes and coaches teach inspiring lessons.
When Muhammad Ali struggled to his feet in that epic 15th round against Joe Frazier, it was a character moment. When 39-year-old Jimmy Connors, on a historic run to the U.S. Open semifinals, looked into a TV camera before a fifth-set tiebreaker in a frenzied stadium and said, "This is what they pay for; this is what they want," before dispatching his much younger challenger, it was a character moment. When Allen Iverson hit that baseline jumper over a defender in the 2001 NBA Finals against the mighty L.A. Lakers, and then theatrically stepped over his fallen opponent, it was a character moment - David basking in his defeat of a bigger, stronger, favored foe.
And then there's Reid. As the Eagles' season derailed, and the countdown to Reid's firing became a cacophony among fans and the media alike, the embattled coach did something that has become rare in America: He took responsibility. Week after week, loss after loss, Reid acknowledged his team's poor play and said things like "That's my responsibility right there" and "I have to do a better job." He was widely ridiculed for it; sports pundits excoriated him for not pointing fingers. But Reid was harking back to a leadership style that has largely fallen out of favor, one that values accountability over excuses.
Once, the buck stopped at Harry Truman's desk. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, John F. Kennedy called himself "the responsible officer of the government" and borrowed the line: "Victory has a hundred fathers, but defeat is an orphan," and saw his popularity surge.
By the 1990s, though, something had changed. The buck apparently stopped with White House staffers when Bill Clinton said of a fund-raising scandal, "Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently."
It's only gotten worse. Four years ago, the financial system collapsed, and to this day no one has taken responsibility or been held accountable for it. In November, Mitt Romney lost a presidential election and, instead of standing up and taking his lumps Reid-style, he suggested it was because those who voted for his opponent had been bought off.
"We do need more buck-stopping and less buck-passing," Michael Useem, the director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at Penn's Wharton School, wrote in an e-mail. "A good indicator of leadership is when one has fully taken charge, offers consistent praise of others for their invaluable contributions, fully accepts final responsibility for all shortfalls and errors, and then works hard to overcome those shortfalls and errors."
Does anyone fit Useem's description better than Reid?
Don't get me wrong: This is not a defense of Reid's coaching. He couldn't fix what he was taking responsibility for, so it was time for new ideas and a new voice in the locker room.
What we saw in those news conferences was nevertheless a form of leadership that is in short supply. It would have been easy for Reid to blame his players; coaches do it all the time. (In the early '70s, Eagles coach Mike McCormack called his team "dogs," prompting fans in the 700 Level of Veterans Stadium to chant, "Alpo! Alpo!") Character, however, is knowing the easy route and choosing otherwise. As a coach, Andy Reid may have driven the fan in me mad, but he reminded me how leaders ought to conduct themselves.