Tide is turning against the bullies
EDDIE JONES and Jose Mourinho are both getting their comeuppance at the moment. That’s a very good thing. The more nails hammered in the coffin of the idea that being a bully and an asshole is conducive to sporting success the better. We’re always assured that Nice Guys Finish Last. Really? Aidan O’Brien, Willie Mullins, Mick O’Dwyer, Sonia O’Sullivan, Joe Canning, Micheál Donoghue, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Katie Taylor, Joe Schmidt and many more tell us otherwise. Few theories are more easily disproven. Yet the idea that the legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher was expressing some kind of profound truth when he made the NGFL comment in 1946 persists.
Why? Maybe because it serves as a kind of justification for the world’s bullies. There are plenty of them out there. In fact, we’re enjoying a golden age of bullying right now. From Simon Cowell to Alan Sugar, from Gordon Ramsay to the Jeremy twins, Kyle and Clarkson, the culture is full of people whose unique selling proposition is their talent for bullying. What, after all, is Donald Trump but the Bully in Chief ?
The signature TV image of the age is of some highly-paid asshole bellowing at an unfortunate who hasn’t lived up to his arbitrary standards. Quite a lot of people like this stuff. They might not be bullies themselves but they cheer on the bully like they’re ‘The Bird’ O’Donnell telling ‘The Bull’ McCabe what a great man he is.
So when Eddie Jones was denigrating England’s opposition, the cross-channel papers were full of articles about how this was just what the doctor ordered. “Of more substance than Jose Mourinho manipulation or baiting is the fact that the Australian has embarked on a strategy of encouraging his players to have no fear of being bullish about themselves. There is to be no softly-softly approach under Jones, treading a delicate line so as not to arouse sensibilities,” gloated The Daily Telegraph. England’s problem is that they’re not arrogant enough? If lack of self-awareness was a rugby player, that one would be Jonah Lomu.
The same kind of deference has been extended to Mourinho. His targeting of referees, his ludicrous personal feuds with Wenger, with Guardiola, with Conte, his singling out of players for blame, the whole shoddy routine was justified as an essential part of Jose’s magic winning formula.
I wonder. There used to be a mad idea that alcoholism was in some way had a kind of symbiotic relationship with great writing. In reality heavy drinking hampered rather than helped most of the famous novelists, poets and playwrights prone to it. The boozing was part of their character rather than of their calling. Had they been bank officials, bricklayers or bus conductors they’d probably have been alcoholics too. The same goes for managers and bullying. This is a question of personality rather than occupation.
One of the many joys of Ireland’s victory over England is that we all knew full well a home victory would have resulted in a different light being cast upon Jones’s “scummy Irish” comment. Emboldened by success, our neighbours would have decided that the Paddies had been far too sensitive and that it was precisely good old Eddie’s abrasive non-PC style which had enabled him to teach us a lesson at Twickenham. Anything can be justified by victory.
That’s why it’s so good to see things going wrong for Jones and Mourinho. Because there is no greater blight on society than the bully. In schools, in homes and in workplaces they make life miserable for others, in some cases inflicting scars which never fade and driving their victims to the brink of insanity. Bullying is a cancer.
When bullies see some high-profile personality being praised for the same kind of behaviour, they feel validated. Every victory for the famous bully is also a victory for his infamous disciples. “Do you see?,” they say. “That’s how you have to act with people. Let them know who’s boss. Put manners on them. Nice Guys Finish Last.”
The tide may be turning against the bully. The current crusade against sexual harassment is on one level a fightback against a particularly pernicious form of bullying. Sexual harassment probably has more to do with power than with sex. A character like Harvey Weinstein is the bully in excelsis, a kind of distilled essence of bully. Yet before his fall the tales of how he demeaned and humiliated everyone who got in his way were a kind of urban legend. There were people who thought he was a gas man.
Similarly, there was a legion of sycophants who delighted for years in telling tedious stories about Charlie Haughey, the punchline always being how he’d told someone to fuck off. There’s always been a sneaking regard for the bully in this country. It’s hardly surprising. Past generations were bullied by the priests from the pulpit and by the Brothers in the schools. Crooked cops bullied confessions out of innocent people and got away with it. It was, in the words of Seán Ó Faoláin, “A country where the policeman and the priest were in a perpetual state of satisfaction.”
We’re moving away from that kind of thing now. But there are those who have a kind of nostalgia for the harsher days of yore. What, after all, is the complaint about, “Political correctness gone mad,” but a plea to be allowed to continue bullying the kind of people who’ve always been bullied in the past?
The sporting world can sometimes be ambivalent about bullying because of a certain sympathy for what can only be described as macho nonsense. This is not to say that bullying is a male-only preserve. My own experience is that any mention of bullying to a woman invariably leads to the response that girls can be just as bad in ways men don’t fully understand.
Still, there does seem to be a connection between machismo and bullying. Too many club and county managers seem to think that they can get the best out of players by imitating the drill instructor from Full Metal
Jacket. Yet the idea that control freakery and intimidation can be the basis of effective man-management seems a pretty dubious one. I suspect in many cases it serves the psychological needs of the manager rather than the best interests of the players. Sport is not war and a team is not a platoon.
It’s a venerable cliché that bullies are secretly unhappy cowards. I’m not too sure about that. Those I’ve seen in action, and who hasn’t come across a bully at some stage, seem to be having a mighty time. A short story by the American writer Stanley Elkin, A Poetics for Bullies, deals with this and is probably the most acute thing I’ve read about bullying.
What does unite the members of the tribe is narcissism. You can see it in Mourinho’s eternal willingness to criticise his players in public. His first priority, rather than working to improve things, is to ensure that when they go wrong he won’t be the one blamed. Contrast that with Jurgen Klopp, whose periodic rocky spells at Liverpool included some notably inadequate individual performances from a much less talented squad than Mourinho’s.
Yet Klopp worked through his problems without excoriating his players in the press. The result is that he is now in a stronger position than Mourinho who may already have embarked on the endgame at Old Trafford.
One problem in selling out your players in public is that they may reciprocate. Hence the effective workto-rule which sealed Mourinho’s fate in his second spell at Chelsea. A fanatical desire to put their bodies on the line for the manager is not particularly obvious among the English rugby players either.
The bully delights in persuading others to join in the persecution (for this reason, social media may be the bullying medium par excellence). Hence Jones regaling that wretched business conference with lines about “the scummy Irish”, and Wales being “a little shit place”. These might not even be his personal opinion but they were the ones he figured would play well with his audience, uniting them and him in bigotry and derision. What a bloody awful way to carry on.
Nice guys never finish last. Being nice guys means they’re winning every day. But their opposite numbers always lose at life. In the end it’s the bully who gets the wooden spoon.
That’s why it’s so good to see things going wrong for Jones
‘When Eddie Jones was denigrating England’s opposition, the papers were full of articles about how this was what the doctor ordered. The same kind of deference has been extended to Jose Mourinho’