Saturday, March 28, 2009

“Give him the AXE!”: The Coach as Scapegoat

In the midst of “March Madness” (by which I mean not the NCAA tournament but rather the daunting stacks of grading that accompany the end of the academic year) and with the conferences/deadlines Corry mentioned below, while at the same time not wanting to let too much time pass between posts, I’ve been anxiously scanning the headlines for something post-worthy. As far as upsets and big stories are concerned, this year’s tourney has been quite uneventful (the Sweet 16 had few Cinderellas, almost entirely composed of 1-4 seeds—except, of course for Daryl’s Arizona Wildcats; and, how badly did they lose to Louisville?). The WBC came and went without a bang. Spring Training drags on. And, Tiger is having trouble finding his groove… Then, my Wildcats, from the University of Kentucky, who missed the tourney for the first time in 17 seasons, came through for me and gave me something to write about: they fired head basketball coach Billy Gillispie.

Not that Billy Clyde didn’t have it coming—quite the contrary. In his two seasons, he lost both home/season openers to Gardner Webb and VMI, repectively (schools I didn’t even know existed), which shows a lack of motivation and preparation, traits that Kentucky carried throughout the forgettable Gillispie era. He was a bad fit from the start. Still, two years is hardly enough time in any profession to establish and prove oneself, right? ...not so in the world of major-sport coaching.

Gillespie’s firing is emblematic of the recent trend in sports where, when lofty expectations are unmet, the fans quickly transform disappointment into collective anger, which is, in turn, mitigated through the scapegoat mechanism. Their emissary victim: of course, the coach. Explored in Girardian terms, league sports operate on the mimetic principle: each team covets and desires a trophy that only one (of 32, 64 or thousands) can attain. The inability to appropriate the desired, sacralized center results in scandal amongst the team, management and supporters—a mimetic contagion which threatens the future efficacy of the team (recruiting, preparing for next season, etc.). To mitigate this entropic process, teams turn their antagonism towards one being, an arbitrarily singled-out victim: the coach. With social order restored in the removal of the scapegoat, supporters are contented and the cycle begins anew.

In other words, the proverbial “hot seat” (see here) and the not-too-distant “boot” that are so commonplace in sports today are not as recent—in design, anyway—as they may initially appear. In fact, as we recall “Fire Crowton!” t-shirts, witness the current French discontent for Raymond Domenech and Didier Deschamps or see Charlie Weis seemingly perpetually on the hot seat in South Bend, we could simply recognize this phenomenon as a modern manifestation of an original, archetypal and foundational form of human interaction.


Corry Cropper said...

Nice post. Very interesting.

Isn't one of Girard's theories that the scapegoat has to be similar to the group out for blood? It's too hard for fans to blame players since they are not similar enough to them--they are gods; but coaches, especially losing ones, are very much like a lot of fans, and they are therefore more easy to target.

And for individual games, the officials, sometimes overweight and balding, make good scapegoats...

Robert J. Hudson said...

Usually, the scapegoat is similar to the group, but with a physical infirmity (a limp, blindness, retardation, etc.; i.e. Oedipus, Baudelaire's "Albatros"); so, yes, coaches (or officials) would better fit the bill than would the "gods of the stadium," as you said.

Players are beyond reproach. To question the team is to undermine the tribe or society. The coach remains an easy target.