WHEN DOES independence among professional athletes become insubordination, then dereliction of duty?
When players act without permission.
Insubordination once was a rarity, quickly quashed by authoritarian coaches who ruled with iron fists. Today, insubordination has become more common. Athletes' wealth and branding have increased their power. More are willing to say what's on their minds, even when those thoughts contradict the party line.
A more compelling question, then:
Is insubordination necessarily corrosive? Is it always a bad thing for a player to criticize his coach's strategies?
No. Input of all sorts should be welcomed. "Do Your Job" might play in New England, but Darth Belichick is the last of the Jedi.
Certainly, once a course of action is determined no one may deviate. That sabotages everyone and ensures failure.
Besides, insubordination has become inevitable. Blind respect for authority no longer exists. Consider the sources.
Today's athlete belongs to a generation of entitled millennials. They have been encouraged at every turn to question authority and to challenge convention. Often, a fresh point of view spurs progress (see: analytics). You can debate the merits of this behavior all you like, but it is a reality in every workplace. Why should it not penetrate professional sports?
The best coaches will adapt.
Brett Brown, take note.
In the past few years, the practice of challenging authority has manifested itself in every sport. In the past few months, Philadelphia has become a hotbed of rebellious jocks.
The Eagles' defensive backs pointedly criticized coordinator Jim Schwartz's disastrous blitz call at the end of the first half against the Ravens two weeks ago. They were right. Given the situation - time, field position, the defenders' abilities - blitzing was an awful decision.
Nerlens Noel complained loudly when he played only 8 minutes on Dec. 16, his second game back from injury. The Sixers were more interested in creating chemistry between big men Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Brown decreed that Noel would not be playing regularly. The next day general manager Bryan Colangelo endorsed this decree. A day after that, Embiid, the franchise center who has established himself as the real power broker on the team, said he wanted to play with Noel, his "best friend."
Noel and Embiid are right.
None of the recent Philadelphia complainants was particularly disrespectful. None conclusively can be accused of speaking completely in his own self-interest.
It is true that Noel wants to be traded. It is true that he needs playing time to prove that he is healthy and that he has improved his limited offensive game. However, only the most stubborn Okafor supporter would argue that the Sixers are a better team with Okafor on the court instead of Noel, whether or not Embiid is on the court at the same time. Okafor is a brilliant offensive post player but an indifferent rebounder and a poor defender. The Sixers play horrific perimeter defense and rely on Embiid to protect the rim and snatch rebounds; Noel's strengths, Okafor's weaknesses.
Certainly, Okafor and Embiid might somehow develop some sort of synergy. In the meantime, the Sixers are watching late-game leads evaporate when Embiid rests and Okafor plays. It happens painfully frequently, most recently Monday night at Sacramento. Noel did not play in the second half.
Noel and Embiid want to win. Should they simply shut up? No.
And they probably won't.
Noel has no incentive to stop complaining. He sees Embiid and Okafor as permanent roadblocks. He is a restricted free agent who has endured three seasons of unequaled humiliation and losses. He wants to win, and he wants to leave.
When Embiid christened himself "The Process" before this season, he stamped himself as the most important part of the Sixers organization - more so even than Brown and Colangelo. As the Golden Child created in Sam Hinkie's laboratory of the absurd, Embiid carries influence similar to LeBron James, who these days chooses his coaches, his teammates and his teammates' contracts. For better or worse, the Sixers created a monster. Embiid has the power to dictate policy and practice. He exercised it when he spoke about Noel and his inclusion. Rest assured: He will exercise it again. He is entitled to do so.
Is this necessarily a bad thing? Should professional sports teams be tyrannies? Or, today, is there room for parliamentary action? Can there be any other path?
Are players already getting a vote?
Certainly, quarterbacks discuss with coordinators plays they prefer to run, much the same way pitchers and catchers meet with the pitching coach to plan for that day's opposing lineup. Even rookies like Carson Wentz have input. But, during the week, do defensive backs get to veto zero-blitzes? Apparently not.
Certainly, the issue is not unique to Philadelphia, nor has it plagued Philly worst.
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman berated coach Pete Carroll on the sideline two weeks ago when Carroll called for a pass play on the goal line, then berated him again, by name, in the postgame press conference. That pass play two weeks ago recalled the pass-play call that cost the Seahawks their best chance at repeating as Super Bowl champions two seasons ago.
Sherman's insubordination was nowhere near as egregious or catastrophic as when, on Saturday, Vikings defensive backs ignored coach Mike Zimmer's game plan and changed the coverage early in their loss to the Packers.
There is a huge difference between complaint and mutiny. Complaint affects morale. Mutiny affects outcome.
To that end: Why should the players not have a voice in determining scheme and participation? That upends convention, but why should convention not be challenged? Again, this is a generation that functions best when it feels acknowledged and invested. Why not acknowledge them? Why not let them invest?
John Harbaugh adopted this strategy when he landed in Baltimore in 2008, to great effect. His players didn't always agree with him - star safety Ed Reed, famously - but their voices are heard, and, so, they more willingly do his bidding. Harbaugh understands that his players are adult professionals, working with him, not necessarily for him.
Ignoring input seems foolhardy.
Consider the cases of Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher, who became head coaches in the fall immediately upon retiring the previous spring. Did they become basketball geniuses over a summer?
Granted, Kidd and Fisher are outliers, certifiable on-court savants as players. And, granted, neither has reinvented NBA coaching.
Still, their basketball IQ was high enough as players that they circumvented the usual apprenticeships. Is LeBron not as smart as them?
Do Noel and Embiid - lesser professionals, but still professionals - offer nothing?
Of course they do.
Which is why Nerlens Noel should be playing more.