“Learn from everyone, copy no one.” – Don Shula
Numbers sometimes tell as compelling a story as words, so consider this. At the end of the 2005 season there were 1,111 Gen Xers active in the National Football League paired up with 1,027 from Gen Y (that group was still working off rookie contracts & had yet to reach free agency). Significance? That was the season before the last renegotiation of the CBA in March of 2006. This Gen X group was heavily influenced by the tail end of the Baby Boomers who passed on a totally different outlook on the game and how it was to be represented and played.
It was this generation that the NFL was built upon over the 70’s and 80’s and prior to the advent of Free Agency as we know it today. The League’s core fan base also grew up under Chuck Knoll’s Steelers, Tom Landry’s Cowboys, Don Shula’s Dolphins, Bud Grant’s Vikings, and Bill Walsh’s 49ers. All five organizations thrived off loyalty and teamwork. Players played the game for one another and for the city they represented, noble ideas for sure. But the very success that these teams fostered over two decades helped build the NFL into the multi-billion dollar industry that it is today and with it all the perks & pitfalls that come with mega entertainment dollars.
By the end of the 2010 season there were only 260 active players remaining from Gen-X and the average age of an NFL player was 27 years old. 1,999 players were born in 1980 or beyond, constituting 88.5% of the player pool, nearly doubling in just five years. The ownerships have remained relatively constant, but the NFL is now negotiating with an entirely different makeup on the NFLPA side. This gap of “misunderstanding” is being passed to the front offices and coaching staffs across the League. Like it or not there’s an inherent and built-in adversarial, generational disparity (especially given the current labor climate) between ownership and the players that only seems to be widening.
The NFL must find ways to meet this new generation of athlete at the midway point. They must be willing to acknowledge they are dealing with an entirely different set of norms and values than even just five years ago. They must be aware of the systems and processes it takes to develop, motivate and retain these players. Above all they must be highly tuned into the leadership abilities and experience of their front office and coaching staffs to accomplish these tasks.
Those Clubs with the foresight to hire individuals that think outside the box, and are willing to stray from the “copy cat principles” that have driven owners to hire the hottest offensive or defensive coordinators or the best available personnel man from the latest playoff contenders, will reap the benefits of this highly talented group. However if they choose to ignore the makeup of their top level leaders, and instead gun for systems or processes that once worked in a rival city, they are in for a difficult time and will more likely be watching than participating come postseason.
Many may have already headed in this very direction with the hiring of coaches and front office personnel that have their own roots in the “Me” generation and their very own engrained narcissistic traits. Suffice to say that so many of the qualities we seem to abhor in our players are at times possessed by the very individuals leading them on Sundays.
To ignore the skills necessary to reach these players could set the League and its Clubs back as far as a decade.
Should we fully expect today’s young sports stars to be something they clearly were not raised to be?