On ‘team culture,’ motivational T-shirts and hazing: Does anyone have an original thought in sports?

There’s too much groupthink and mimicry, as the Northwestern scandal shows.

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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald looking on during a 2022 game against Ohio State in Evanston.

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald looks on during a 2022 game against Ohio State in Evanston.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I was having a good day. I really was. I was enjoying some time off out of town. The sky was blue. The sun was shining. If I had a care in the world, you would have needed to commission a search party to find it. Then I turned on the TV news.

I know what you’re thinking: Never do that. War. Disease. Indictments. And that’s before the anchor has had a chance to exhale.

But this was a local sports report, and the story was about a Division III football team.

I know what you’re thinking: How could something as harmless as D-III football get a person riled up? Easy. The theme of the story, pushed by the coach, was the program’s “culture change.’’ Good Lord. Not here, too.

Anyone who has paid attention to professional sports knows that “culture’’ has been the biggest buzzword of the past decade. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that locker room chemistry was important to winning, and somewhere further along the way, someone decided to refer to that as a team’s culture. The term is all the rage now. And it makes me gag.

If team culture is so important, why do NBA teams keep trading for James Harden?

The bigger point here is that few people in sports, but especially in football, have an original thought. The proof of that is the D-III coach above who, heading into his second year with the program, was talking about his team’s new culture. I took that to mean that the seniors of last year’s team, the players he didn’t recruit, the riffraff, were gone now. You won’t be surprised to learn that the current players interviewed for the story also talked about the culture. With the zeal of the newly baptized, they were buying what the coach was selling.

So, yes, the motivational trickle-down from the pros has found its way to low-level college football. My guess is that there’s a T-ball coach out there who, at this very moment, is stroking his chin and muttering to himself, “Culture change! That’s it! The missing piece!”

There’s too much groupthink in football and too much mimicry. I was reminded of this recently when Northwestern got into hot water for about the 20th time during its ongoing hazing scandal. Some coaches and staff members showed up at a practice with T-shirts emblazoned with “Cats Against the World.’’ The shirts also had “51’’ on them — Pat Fitzgerald’s number when he played for Northwestern. The school fired him as its football coach last month after former players said hazing was rampant in the program. The T-shirts were an ode to complete tone-deafness, as athletic director Derrick Gragg pointed out in a statement.

No one should have been surprised, though. Two weeks before, interim coach David Braun had talked about the “adversity’’ his players — not the hazed former players — were facing during the scandal.

“A lot of people have been impacted by … the decisions that have been made over the course of the last couple weeks, and our guys right now in that facility are going through a lot,’’ he said. “We have an opportunity to either run from that or an opportunity to truly stare that adversity in the face, stare it down, and go attack this opportunity to make this fall an incredible story that truly embodies what this team is all about.’’

So a T-shirt boasting of an us-against-the-haters mentality? Of course!

I keep coming back to the lack of originality in football. A motivational T-shirt? Really? That’s the best you’ve got? I made light of this same subject way back in 1997, when then-NU coach Gary Barnett was handing out T-shirts with motivational slogans on them. It felt like a high school move even then. I can see now that, despite offensive and defensive strategy evolving over the years, methods to get players to “buy into” a team’s “culture’’ haven’t evolved much beyond 100% cotton.

It raises the question: What did coaches use to motivate players before the invention of T-shirts in the late 1800s? Bib overalls?

Northwestern wouldn’t be in so much trouble if someone had stepped up and said, “You know, hazing might have worked 50 years ago, but what do you say we try something new?” If football weren’t so hidebound, weren’t so tied to the past, perhaps the school wouldn’t be answering questions in 2023 about freshman players being dry-humped by older teammates as a rite of passage.

Hazing was never a good idea, but at least you could make the argument that the 1960s, the 1970s or even the 1990s were a less enlightened time. But looked at in the daylight of the 2020s, hazing NU-style is beyond creepy.

And, to think, Northwestern was lauded for its team culture under Fitzgerald.

Some creativity. Some originality. Some common sense. Is that asking so much?

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