Sunday, 24 February 2013

Mrs Thatcher's rugby franchises

In 1987 the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher infamously stated "there's no such thing as society". Instead there are only individual men and women and there are families.  By this she meant the state was an inefficient deliverer of social support and identity. What did exist in her view was community and culture and  it was in these  that values, identities and meanings were passed on from generation to generation. In community and culture there also existed the mutual interplay of expectations and obligations. Her concern was that the continued recourse to "society" as the provider  and as "the answer"  no longer involved what is termed the social contract- which is precisely that interplay of expectations and obligations.

When discusions of the performance of a  team, club  or franchise occurs no-one ever speaks of a team society or club society. What they talk of is a team culture.  For in sport there is no society. Sport is individual men and women- and the family of the club or team. Yet a club or team does exist in an web of social contracts: the obligations and expectations that exist between team members, management, the owners, the fans- and  increasingly, the media. When coaches speak  of the need to change the team culture they are always speaking of the internal social contracts within the team and  the extended social contracts between the team and the wider community.

The New Zealand franchises provide interesting  examples of the differing ways the social contract is being enacted. If we consider the Crusaders then it appears that which was once a highly succesful culture is starting to fray like a society in breakdown. The Deans years developed a particular culture of community, obligation and expectation that operated on one level as a combination finishing school and borstal. Difficult but talented players were shipped south and either remade or shipped out again. Those with talent gained a polish to both their games and lives. A family ethos, in fact a tribal ethos developed that was far ahead of other franchises as they struggled to adapt to what being professional involved. However, as in all communities, all families, all tribes, the tribal elders determine the culture, ethos and performance. How do they adapt to the changing world? How do they adjust in ways that allow innovation that is intergrated with on-going obligations and responsibities? The way Todd Blackadder has been reported suggests that he is all too aware that a culture change is required within the team and within its leadership. The desire to keep such changes within what can be termed the local tribal elders is a risky one in a time when the notion of the tribe is increasingly fluid. For if the tribe is a fluid resource so too are the tribal elders.

The eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman talks of modernity as being a society, a culture defined by fluidity, or in his term, liquid. The origin goes back to Karl Marx and his description of modernity wherein "all that is solid melts into air." Late-modernity is a time and culture of fluid identities, cultures, loyalties and connections. Yet amidst all of this people are looking for solidity, for those things to value and hold on to, for those claims upon how they live their lives that give meaning in relation to others.  The creation and maintenance of a  team culture is really the creation and maintainence of a set of values and expectations, identity and and community amongst an increasingly disparate bunch of young men. It must be fluid in the sense that traditon is not enough in and by itself. It must be innovative in being open to the surrounding changes and possibilities. But it must have at centre a re-thought social contract.

 Consider the alternative of the Chiefs. A couple of seasons ago the social contract obviously wasn't working. So the tribal elders were replaced and in came new leadership who then decided what types of players they wanted within the team. This meant some were let go,  others were retained and re-trained and so was created a new team culture. The players spoke of a new culture, a new culture of expectations and obligations- in effect a new social contract.

Like-wise the Blues appear to have undertaken a very similar approach with an impressive result over the weekend. The turn around of a team playing like a society in urban breakdown last year to a team of collective community this year demonstrates how important team culture is- but also how important tribal leadership and make-up are. The Hurricanes attempted something similar last year but still play as if the social contract is misunderstood at player level. The Highlanders likewise have tried to rethink and reimagine themselves. Yet a social contract is a mutual engagement of management and players, of a fluid interchange of expectations and obligations. This past weekend The Highlanders played like a dysfunctional society, the Chiefs played like a functioning community.
The Hurricanes it seems are a society in transition to a community, while the Crusaders once were a community but seemed on the slide to a society. That is why the Crusders BBQ was such a fascinating and important experience. It was a signal that a culture shift is underway, the return to community.

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