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Thursday, November 29, 2012
General Dynamics

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

At a glance, "How do you give up a first down on fourth-and-29?" sounds like a different line of inquiry than "How do you lose money selling Twinkies to the fattest people on the planet?" It is not. Nor is "Should I use the Internet to conduct an affair with my biographer while sitting in a building full of spies?"

Norv Turner
Norv Turner retains his job despite befuddling a generation of fans with his decisions.

At various moments in our history, business and football and the military have all been mocked, savagely, for their small-mindedness, bureaucratic incompetence and institutional corruption. This is not one of those moments.

In fact, we live in a time of unbecoming credulity, in which we not only honor these institutions, but overpraise the men and women who populate them. Somehow, despite the Internet and its democratization of muckraking commentary and deep sarcasm, business and football and the military are taken more seriously by more Americans than ever before.

You're better off at a dinner table full of strangers starting a conversation about politics or sex or religion, things about which Americans have already agreed they'll disagree. But never question football. It is our national metaphor now, embracing as it does both business practice and tactical combat, strategy and diplomacy, labor and management. It is our corporate fairy tale of perfect teamwork and individual fulfillment arising from an unbending, top-down hierarchy.

Baseball, our antique American pastoral, feels more like a loose association of rural contractors. On the field it's a farm co-op. From end to end, basketball and hockey are a confusion of freelancers, a van full of door-to-door salesmen. Soccer, in which 10 men seem to earn a European living from the genius and enterprise of one man's hard work -- while management looks on in a tailored cashmere coat -- feels appropriately socialist.

But none of these are the heart and head of America, which is where football now resides. Big football sits at the symbolic center of our 21st century military-industrial-entertainment complex.

So why do we insistently mythologize bad leadership and poor decision-making? Why do we treat all coaches with the same mystical regard we treat the best coaches? Why do we treat every general like Sun Tzu? Why treat every CEO like a Rockefeller or a Morgan or a Jobs?

Out of our reflexive impulse to respect the office, I guess, to respect the uniform or the job title. But excellence is a rare thing. Only a few coaches are really special. A Gagliardi, a Brown, a Noll, a Walsh, a Lombardi. Most are pretty ordinary, like the rest of us. Same with CEOs. Their bad decision-making should humanize them, help put us all on equal footing. But we treat them as if they're extraordinary.

So you have to wonder at the end of a month like this, will the American cult of the coach and the four-star general and the CEO fail simultaneously? Will Hostess and Romeo Crennel all bustout the same week?

Probably not.

David Petraeus
David Petraeus was undone by personal decisions.

But the late roll call of knuckleheads on the sidelines and in the boardrooms and the war rooms is a long one. What about Rex Ryan or Norv Turner? Kiffin or Dooley or Chizik? Mangini, Mangino and Weis, Franks, Shinseki, McCrystal? Back through the late-game collapses, back to a lost New York, a botched Iraq, abandonments in Arkansas and Kansas and Afghanistan. The trouble these days is we accord the high esteem we should reserve for the greats to the C+ generals and coaches and CEOs. Part of this on the assumption they know something we don't.

They do not.

As the Peter Principle suggests, they have simply risen to the level of their own incompetence, as will we all, until we are no longer able to do the job for which were hired -- as was borne out by another not very smart Romeo this month, general David Petraeus, now the former director of a humorless American institution we treat with too much reverence. The CIA remains impervious to us all.

As does the BCS. We'll see the proof early next year when The State University of Football Arts and Sciences plays Our Lady of Perpetual Football for the "national championship." There'll be the usual toothless wisecracks from columnist to columnist and fan to fan, and a mile or two of lighthearted life-on-campus footage rolled out between the beer commercials, but the essential seriousness of the thing itself will never be questioned. Not by the press or anyone else. Only on the faraway margins will you hear or see arguments over head injuries or payoffs or performance enhancement.

We demand absolute metrics now to measure the performance of our kindergarten teachers, but rush unthinking to pay out millions to nincompoops and moral incompetents like Bobby Petrino because he knows how to operate a whistle.

The titans of Wall Street who collapsed a world economy; the coaches who couldn't get you into the playoffs; the generals who couldn't get you out of Iraq -- we reveal ourselves in who and what we value.

Odd but apt, I suppose that we honor all these things in what is nominally the Age of Irony. But instead of writing "Babbitt" or "M*A*S*H" or "North Dallas Forty," we swing too far in the other direction. We pay our unquestioning respects to the profitable or the merely sentimental or the nonsensical or even the disreputable. All this well-meant reverence institutionalizes mediocrity. Or worse.

Revere the clipboard, the shoulder boards, the corner office. The nightstick and the gun. The illusion of order. In every case the danger is the same. That in taking the wrong things seriously, we overlook the most serious wrongs.