What is "coach"? Do we need it?

In a post yesterday, I appeared to strike a chord (and for some a nerve) when I supplied the history of the attitudes manifest in Marc Stein’s scolding LeBron James for his “unbecoming” behavior in “emasculating” Coach David Blatt. I concluded with a fantasy of my own: that LeBron would indeed become the coach of the Cavs.

This morning, Mike Foss of USA Today weighed in granting that LeBron may be good enough to LeBron “to call his shots, to draw up plays, maybe even draft a team. But he does lack one necessary ability required of a coach, and that’s managing personalities. Do you think LeBron wants to be the guy who tells Mike Miller he isn’t setting foot on the floor in Game 6 of the NBA Finals because he’s an old and tired shell of himself?” Foss concluded that Blatt plays a “thankless and necessary role.” It may be thankless, but I’m not so sure it’s necessary and I think it’s important not to assume that it is. And I don’t mean Blatt specifically, I mean the conventional way of thinking about what a coach does and, on that basis, what a “coach” should look like.

Foss reminds us that a coach has the responsibility to execute certain functions.  Some of those he believes LeBron could execute, others not. But I think it’s useful to take this a bit further by thinking critically about some of the assumptions.  Here’s how I would do it.  This may be hard because it’s a massive blind-spot for most sports fans and even many athletes (I’ve tried and written about it before), so I made it into a kind of checklist.

  • First:
    • notice that we think of “Coach” as a job occupied by an individual person.
    • Suspend that habit.
  • Think instead of “coach” (lower-case) as the name we give to a set of tasks that we believe must be completed for a team to succeed consistently.
  • Second
    • notice that we tend to think that these tasks must be executed
      • by an individual (not a group)…
      • who is not a player on the team,…
      • and (by force of history in America) that it’s best if that individual is a white male (regardless of the gender or race of the players).
      • Suspend these tendencies.
  • Think instead of “coach” (see one above) as a delivery device (like a cigarette is a delivery device for nicotine, and nicotine is a delivery device for certain neurochemical processes).
  • Now:
    • decide if what is being delivered is truly essential or desirable
    • make a list of the seen and unseen benefits and costs of using that particular device to deliver that particular thing

The habits I name above are understandable.  We’re used to seeing decisions affecting groups of people made by individuals with hierarchical authority over the members of the group.  At the office there are bosses, supervisors, managers, CEO’s, Department Chairs and Deans; at home there are parents; at society there are mayors, governors, and presidents.  All delivery devices, just like coaches.  Maybe we really want what they deliver and maybe we’ve devised the best system possible for getting what they deliver.  Or maybe not.  Or maybe in some cases yes and in other no.

My point is that we rarely take the time and summon the courage to openly ask the question: Do we really want this thing delivered? If so, what’s the best way? Is this the best way? Is there something wrong with this? Are we really absolutely sure it couldn’t be done better, or with fewer harmful side-effects, in some other way?

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the case of coaches in sports. James Naismith is supposed to have said (when his student Phog Allen told him he’d been offered a basketball coaching job): “You can’t coach basketball, you just play it!” The possibly wounded Allen went on to invent and institutionalize the college-coaching profession.

And now, we are to a point where it’s next to impossible for most athletes and fans to even conduct the thought experiment of teams without coaches; of players managing their own personalities and relationships, running their own practices, making their own in-game decisions. I’m not saying this has to be done or is always best. I’m just saying think it through, consider it.

Consider for a moment what we are assuming about athletes when we assume that these things couldn’t happen. Consider then—I’m sorry but I have to say it—that in professional basketball most of the athletes are black and most of the coaches are white. Consider finally that in our country’s past (and, sadly, present) in which white men have the power of life and death over black men.

Then ask yourself if it’s not worth at least trying to imagine a world where athletes could own, manage, and coach themselves. And if you decide it’s not, then ask yourself why?

In a 1956 essay called “Every Cook Can Govern”, the Caribbean author, teacher, activist and cricket commentator  CLR James reminded his readers:

The Greek form of government was the city-state. Every Greek city was an independent state. At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war. They listened to the envoys of foreign powers and decided what their attitude should be to what these foreign powers had sent to say. They dealt with all serious questions of taxation, they appointed the generals who should lead them in time of war. They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Greek Democracy was that the administration (and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones whose names came out.

Now the average CIO bureaucrat or Labor Member of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested to him that any worker selected at random could do the work that he is doing, but that was precisely the guiding principle of Greek Democracy. And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.

James affirmed the talent, dignity and value of every member of society and pointed that what is gained by genuine democracy is so much greater than what our leaders have taught us to fear would be lost.  I wish that more people in the world of sports would think like James.


  • Interesting questions. According to Stein (and I think a lot of other reporting throughout the season), LeBron seems to have considerable trust in Tyronn Lue. So maybe LeBron as player/coach, with Lue as an elevated assistant/”associate head coach” in charge of rotations and other in-game things that might be too much for a player/coach to be fully on top of at all times, could work. That division of labor and roles, or something like it, could fit into the checklist of “coach” definitions you list.

    On a much more mundane level, player-coaches would have to be explicitly allowed in a new NBA collective bargaining agreement, since they’re not allowed in the current one:

    “Incidentally, players are no longer allowed to become player-coaches. This is because it would be possible to circumvent the cap by signing a player as a player-coach, and paying him less as a player but overpaying him as a coach.”


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  • Oh my god, the CBA thing! I had no idea! Seems that the problem that clause is designed to solve could be solved in some other way, no?

    • It would probably take a solution more creative than I could come up with. If the CBA explicitly included an option to pay a player more if he also has coaching duties, then teams could create a sham coaching position on their staff to allow them to pay over the max, but without the player having to do any actual coaching.

      Though I would support this just for the hilarity of teams pretending to sign questionable max-deal guys as “coaches.” Say hello to Coach Gilbert Arenas!

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