So What’s The Deal With The Whole ‘Co-Captains’ Thing?

Keen readers of this website will know I occasionally enjoy throwing some business-speak into the odd article.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the increasing commodisation of sport as a “product.” Global CEOs have turned their hand to sports administration and are constantly on the look out for emerging markets; for a “greater slice of the pie.” And while we don’t hear Andrew Demetriou talking openly about revenue from commercial operations and the net increase in cash holdings, there’s no doubt that the AFL in particular represents the rapid evolution of sport from humble past-time to grotesque, money-making corporate behemoth.

“We need to take a holistic, cradle-to-grave approach…”

But I want to backtrack a second and talk about one of the more annoying business traits that has slowly crept into the sporting world. I’m talking about the tendency for coaches to choose “co-captains” – occasionally known as a “leadership group.” It is a goodwill exercise with the focus on ‘culture’ and ‘360-degree thinking’, designed to facilitate a more open, approachable top-tier.

What it does, in reality, is create a cohort of self-important executives with diminished accountability.

Let’s go back to the Allan Border days, when men were men and boys were boys. The grizzled veteran cast a frightening aura over his young, inexperienced team in the tumultuous post-Rod Marsh/Dennis Lillee/Greg Chappell days. Back then, youngsters were straight-up scared of AB. He’d sit in the corner of the change-room, keeping a watchful eye on everyone. His vice-captain, Geoff Marsh, was nothing but a sycophantic right-hand man, bless his heart.

The sweet taste of Ashes victory

It was just AB calling the shots, with the assistance of coach Bob Simpson. But there was a clear and obvious hierarchy – and everyone respected AB because they had to.

There is nothing wrong with this autocratic model. A singular, uncompromising leader with a strong backing can really make some inroads – Hitler’s regime springs to mind – and sport, while not the Third Reich per-se, is one of these situations. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and all that lark.

But the needless creation of executive jobs something that should remain in the business world. Having a ‘backs’ captain, a ‘forwards’ captain and a ‘press conference specialist guy’, for example, is bureaucratic overkill.

I think the Sydney Swans were one of the first sporting organisations to install a leadership group. Then-coach Paul Roos – a America-phile – had come back from the states enamoured with how progressive their professional set-ups were. Arguably, it worked – in no small part due to the ‘no dickheads’ policy, a code of practice installed by the players themselves to govern bad behaviour.

Roos in monochrome. This photo was likely used in a ‘Good Weekend’ feature on leadership

Ironically, the Parramatta Eels have just announced a leadership group of their own – consisting solely of dickheads. Ricky Stuart has handed the co-captaincy honours this year to Jarryd Hayne and Reni Maitua, with Tim Mannah (not a dickhead, yet) also expected to play a role. It is yet to be seen whether this gamble will pay off. But I don’t think it will. For starters, Jarryd Hayne “tweeted” the announcement last week, which is already an ominous sign of immaturity:

Huge honour being told by the coach that ill be CO-CAPTAIN of the Parramatta Eels with @renimaitua n @tim_mannah club captain. #eels2013

This wouldn’t happen in cricket. The term ‘captain’s knock’ would have to be re-defined, for starters. So why do football teams persist in creating co-captains? A single captain is someone to be inspired by; his performance can gallivanise a team when the “chips are down.” If there are too many captains, it by nature spoils the effect of the captain’s knock/tackle/hit-up/goal.

Introducing the Parramatta co-captain for 2013

Co-captaincy smells like pandering to me. Senior players with a sizable market value like Jarryd Hayne are offered the “honour” of being named co-captain. It bumps their salary up a bit and they feel important; they feel tied to the club just that little bit more.  But we, the sporting public, have realised that the concept of co-captaincy is a thinly veiled attempt by the club’s board of directors to keep their best players under contract. We are not stupid.

While I ardently long for sport to return to the halcyon days of the 1980s and (early) 1990s, I’ve reluctantly accepted that sport is now a  “product” and codes compete for “market share” in an increasingly “competitive environment.” And I know that means we’ll never again see folksy advertising campaigns like  Greg Champion’s AFL ballad, ‘That’s The Thing About Football’, Tina Turner’s sexually-charged rugby league homage, ‘What You Get Is What You See’, and, of course, Channel Nine’s legendary World Series Cricket tune, ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’.

But some things must remain sacred – specifically, that each sporting team has one inspirational leader to guide them towards the coveted premiership. After all, who wants to see three “co-captains” simultaneously hoist the Telstra Premiership Cup on NRL grand final day?

By Dave Edwards


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