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Democracy in sports: the benefits of group decisions

The traditional mindset in sports is that teams succeed by dictatorships. Whether a coach or a manager, teams in all types of sports centralize by being led by one totalitarian expert who makes all the calls for the team. This puts all the glory and blame on one man; if the team continues to succeed the coach becomes a legend, but in failure, the coach is exiled into forgotten territory.

Lombardi got the super bowl award named after him for his great success, while Jim Zorn is less than a footnote in Redskins history. But trends have shown that this is a more than ineffective strategy. Making decisions through one person, rather than getting different viewpoints and opinions, is counterproductive to group success.

The greatest representation of this trend is the French soccer team, Olympique Lyonnais. The team’s history was more than forgetful, that is, until bought in the 80s by Jean-Michel Aulas. As the team’s new chairman, he began to reconstruct with a process built around the team being organized economically. The team managed to sneak its way into France’s top league, and within the decade was regularly finishing top three in the league.

Lyon continued to adjust and transition, making all personnel decisions through a group of educated informants, and the team’s success culminated in its first French title in 2001. Thus began an era of domination that lasted until 2008.

Although Lyon itself may be a large city in France, the team had never been a soccer powerhouse in the country before. Lyon was only able to have a period of domination in French soccer because its scouting, coaching decisions and signings were all leagues ahead of its competition due to the power of groupthink.

Other teams in Europe all began adjusting to this model, adding more minds into the conversation when it came to team building. Still, no major team has taken the steps to build their team as efficiently as Olympique Lyonnais.

This trend is not merely limited to soccer, either. Most American sports leagues, historically, have one coach always as the team face who makes the bulk of the decisions only with certain duties deferred to the lower coaching stations.

However, in recent years this trend has been countered by the rise of a separate position: the general manager. Only the Patriots have their coach, Bill Belichick, as their general manager and he is a understandable exception as his own personal knowledge surpasses most of the minds in the league.

In the last few decades in the NFL, NBA and MLB, the general manager has been an increasingly important position in the locker room that has taken more and more powers in personnel decisions in drafting and scouting. The general manager regularly works with the coaches and the ownership groups to make the best decisions for the team, showing a little bit of the decentralization that that helped make Lyon successful.

“Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis rejuvenated the sports minds around America in reference to how we think about baseball and what it takes to become successful. The book condemned a lot of traditional thinking and focused on the benefits of using sports statistics to become more effective in team building.

Just as Michael Lewis once did, it is time to throw out the old style way of thinking in sports and further break down decision making in sports into groups, so we can get more talented products of the games we love.