Rewarding Mediocrity

Our company tagline is refuse mediocrity. When my wife and I were creating the brand strategy for our business, we knew that tagline would be words we’d live by now and for the rest of our lives.

I always say I’m allergic to mediocrity. I haven’t always been allergic to it, though. During my professional football career, I was an expert at mediocrity: mediocrity in thinking, mediocrity in maturity and mediocrity in behavior. Ironically, being mediocre in all those areas ultimately resulted in my being mediocre on the football field, too.

None of this is fun to admit, but there’s freedom in confession. I have nothing to hide and, because I’ve driven an icepick through mediocrity in those areas of my life, I’d like to say I have an ability to identify how mediocrity of character is rewarded in sports, and why I think it’s destroying what used to be one of the greatest platforms for character development.

Until very recently, sports provided young boys and young men with an opportunity to be led, guided and steered in right directions. Many coaches stood in (not by choice, but by default) as second-fathers. Parents used to be able to rest assured that the time their son was in the care of a coach was time spent under rigid leadership, consequences to poor choices and rewards for a job well done.

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Today, second-fathers have been replaced with best buddies. Leadership has been replaced with friendship. Consequences to poor choices are intercepted in the name of preserving starting positions. And, until an athlete is in high school, the person finishing ninth gets the same reward as the person finishing first.

Don't even get me started on the pervasive participation trophy mentality that has insidiously poisoned, well, everything.  

Call me crazy, but if I didn’t have a lick of talent in sports as a child, no one – and I mean, no one – in my life would have encouraged me to participate in something that didn’t have a chance of shaping my future. No one would’ve invested in it, either. My parents never had a lot of money. My parents had to provide for five rapidly growing boys. We each went through a gallon of milk a day.

Each, I said. 

My parents didn’t exactly have the disposable income to throw at every whim we had. If we wanted to play a sport on any level, we needed to show some promise early on, or it wasn’t happening. My parents would just tell us to keep searching until we'd found a good fit.

We weren’t allowed to just “participate.” And we certainly weren’t rewarded for finishing lower than first or losing a game. Finishing lower than first and losing games meant we weren’t good enough on that day, and that hard work (remember that?) had to be kicked into another gear so we didn’t get caught slipping at the next competition or game.

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And, not for nothin’ but, when I was playing ball at the University of Georgia, if we didn’t win at least nine games, we weren’t going to a bowl game that mattered.

And, there were just 17 bowl games total in 1988. There were 40 in 2017.

FORTY.

Just sayin’.

But, in addition to the rewarding of mediocrity in performance in today’s sports culture, another disturbing trend is the rewarding of mediocrity of character. The headlines are consumed with athletes doing and saying things – in public – that would be cause for severe punishment without the safety cushion of big time college and professional sports organizations (and the accompanying legal teams) either making the offenses disappear or result in minimal consequence.

There are fleeting moments of excellence of character, Bbut, by and large, as long as the season doesn’t get interrupted, mediocrity of character is perfectly fine.

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I had my share of mediocre character moments. I didn’t work as hard in school as I could have because I didn’t think I had to. I didn’t seize the opportunity to meet people working in other industries outside the locker room because I thought the demand for my presence would never fade. I got in fights. I got DUIs. I failed drug tests. I squandered my professional football career and retired before it had ever really had a chance to begin.

The difference though, is that the people in leadership around me didn’t get in the way of me reaping what I’d recklessly sown. They let me take my lumps, each time hoping I would learn my lesson and figure out that I wasn’t exempt from the fallout of making boneheaded decisions.

It was that kind of leadership that, when I finally did get it, made the biggest difference in shaping the man I am today.

And it’s my life mission to be that kind of leader for the young men in the NCAA and NFL.