Once you look beyond apple pie, Thanksgiving and the consumer culture of the Christmas season, there are few things that are more American than sports. The Super Bowl is the most watched television event in America, and March Madness, the World Series, and NBA and NHL playoffs do not disappoint sponsors either. Parents and children alike herald sports as the way to build camaraderie and teach how to win and to lose with dignity.
Sports heroes give us the underdog stories kids thrive on and offer an alternative path to success from a straight academic narrative of achievement. They formulate how we look at relationships in schools and workplaces. Everyone, regardless of involvement in sports, is taught to be a team player. The team dynamic is intrinsic to our American identity, whether or not the Super Bowl is an event on our calendars.
What fascinates me most about sports in American culture is that it is the single institution which professes to be democratic yet has an inherently anti-democratic structure — for example, selecting captains for a team. Most teams have coach-selected captains, from intramural leagues to college varsity teams. An adult selects a player or two for a leadership position based on a highly subjective set of criteria and often without consultation from other players. In what other student organization is there such clear despotism?
I've heard the justification from many coaches that a coach-selected captain system is the fairest system because it eliminates the possibility of captain-selection based on popularity. But we don't have to look beyond the most obvious example of popularly elected officials, especially local politicians, to see that their ability to function depends heavily on whether they maintain popular support. Likewise, a captain of a sports team will not find it easy to lead team members who resent their captaincy.
Coaches have a self-interested motive in selecting captains. A coach-selected captain owes her position to the coach, and therefore is more likely to serve the coach's interests rather than her team's. The danger of a player-selected captain for a coach is clear. This captain is a threat to a coach's authority.
A player-selected captain does have a clear benefit for a coach, however. If a captain is only interested in preserving her own position and does not view keeping her teammates satisfied as crucial, the information that a coach receives from this captain about the team is likely to be unhelpful. A captain selected by the players will be those players' advocate. A captain is that extra set of eyes for the coach to use, and is likely to offer an alternate opinion if she sees herself in a position to challenge the decisions of the coach and push the coach to see new options.
Like authoritarian leaders, a coach will rarely relinquish the ability to choose captains, while players who hold the ability to choose their own captains and relinquish this privilege won't find themselves satisfied with the result. Even the most well-intentioned coaches can't make a choice that will be respected by the team every time. When a coach selects a captain, a player above the rest, they inevitably lose a little bit of their credibility with the team.
Players don't always make the right decisions. Captains might be selected for the wrong reasons — perhaps as a lesser of two evils, perhaps because of their greater popularity. But once elected, this captain has a responsibility to all of the players. Captains who suggest their friends for starting positions they don't deserve, or fail to advocate for the unseen star of the team, will find themselves quickly impeached.
One of the factors that coaches rarely consider is whether a player wants to be captain. The general assumption is that all players aspire to that position, but this is far from true. On a competitive team such as colleges boast, captaincy is a time-consuming and stressful position that not all competent players seek. It is hard for a player to say no to a coach and risk her personal standing in her coach's eyes, whereas it is significantly easier to decline a nomination by players, allowing players more able to serve their own needs first.
At a school where intramural to club to varsity athletes are expected to be students before athletes, and at a school that professes a liberal ideology, it might be reasonable to expect students to be able to select their own captains. We are given the choice of direction for our education, we are eligible to vote for our politicians, and we select members of our other clubs. There is no reason beyond the "enlightened" leadership of coaches that players should not pick their peer leaders.
Susannah Kroeber '11 is a proud member of a team with player-selected captains.