Hours before being fired by the Toronto Raptors, the soon-to-be-former head coach Kevin O’Neill complained to the press that the team's woes were in part because there was "too much access to players." Is that a reasonable criticism to be levied at a professional sports team?

Is There Too Much Access to Players?

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services  

Hours before being fired by the Toronto Raptors, the soon-to-be-former head coach Kevin O’Neill complained to the press, including The Toronto Star and The Winnipeg Sun Media, that the team's woes were in part because there was "too much access to players." Is that a reasonable criticism to be levied at a professional sports team?

The key word is "professional." These athletes are being paid to play a game. Imagine you have joined an NBA team. Do you think you could handle the multitude of distractions that would come your way? O'Neill doesn't think you could. "Players need to be left alone," the Sun Media quoted O'Neill as saying. "Players need to be concentrating on basketball and winning and doing the right thing -- night in and night out."

Isn't that up to the players?

Movie stars deal with paparazzi, constant attention, and autograph seekers at every turn, yet they manage to do their jobs. To an extent, so do high-profile corporate icons. Even athletes on other NBA teams seem capable of winning despite all the distractions. Could it be that the Raptors, alone among all franchises, heap more distractions on their players than befall even such icons as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James?

O'Neill claimed he banished various hangers-on from the locker room who were not focused on winning as much as they were on being able to say, "Hey, I know Jalen Rose. Isn't that groovy?"  To be clear, there is no doubt that O'Neill was justified and right in banishing distractions from the locker room. Much like autograph seekers are not allowed on movie sets, TV studios, or corporate boardrooms, neither should they be permitted in the locker room, except possibly at special times and for concrete purposes such as media availability. (Surely not all members of the press purely want Toronto to win. They want stories.)

Still, eliminating distractions during working hours is not the same as eliminating distractions during the players' personal times. To exaggerate the point, it almost sounds as if O'Neill's ideal would be to place the players in freeze-chambers between games and thaw them out, undistracted, for a quick breath of fresh air and a victory.

But these players are pros! This is their job. Like you and me, they also have family, friends, interests, and hobbies outside of work. And like you and me, some portion of those friendships developed out of casual acquaintances in the workplace. Not all of those colleagues will be solely interested in seeing them succeed, even though they work in the same organization. Yes, there will be those who just like hanging around Jalen Rose or Vince Carter or Chris Bosh. Most of them will be a bore to the player, but some of them might have genuine friendships.

Should players not associate with people who don't proclaim at every opportunity that winning is the most important thing?

Should players and fellow franchise employees be separated if the talk is not centered around winning basketball games?

Should players be forced to file divorce against insufficiently supportive spouses?

Players are going to have distractions. It is up to the general manager, and possibly the coach in special situations, to ensure that the team of people working in the franchise share a common vision. Distracting players is a cost, but if it has a valuable upside, it could still be the appropriate course of action.

A team like the New York Knicks likes to have players that spend extra time participating in community events. It helps them build franchise value and recognition regardless of their performance during the season. All NBA teams participate in some kind of reading program. Those activities distract from winning, and encourage the exact sentiment that O'Neill banished from the locker room: familiarity. Familiarity is great. A kid can say, "Hey, I shot around with Allan Houston. Isn't that awesome?" He will then cheer for Houston, and the Knicks, and be a lifetime Knicks fan. He'll buy tickets and gear and watch them on TV and talk about them around the water-cooler. In many ways, that can be even more important than winning an extra game or two. Certainly, the Knicks seem to think so.

O'Neill's remarks, at least as they were printed, are just wrong. Professionals can handle distractions as well as anyone else. It is not up to the coach or the GM or even the team as a whole to determine who has access to players: it is up to the players.

To be sure, O'Neill does not seem to be referring to friends and invited guests, but employees of the franchise.

Still, from your own experience at your job, you know as a matter of human reality that it is not impossible to avoid colleagues you don't want to associate with. And if a particular employee is annoying or incompetent or downright counterproductive, he can be quickly and quietly reassigned or fired.

To say that "you shouldn't be part of the organization if you detract from winning," as O'Neill was quoted as saying, is simplistic. Winning is a subsidiary goal of an NBA franchise. The primary goal is getting eyeballs, both in the stands and in homes, on TV and radio, and generating and keeping fans.

In any given season, only half the teams in the league can win more than they lose. Are the others all failures? Were the Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers failures this year? Certainly not. Utah fans couldn't be prouder of how their team did. Cleveland fans couldn't be more excited about the future.

It's a common cliche that winning is the most important thing, but it's a lie. Winning is third.

And playing is second.

But entertaining is first.