Playing Favorites: How Susceptible are Coaches to Personal Biases?


Deebo is back. There goes the neighborhood—Mike Tomlin (@CoachTomlin) September 23, 2014

Once again Bob Labrioloa’s column Asked and Answered has sparked an idea for a post. Here’s the Q & A:

Q: Why do the Steelers continue to let James Harrison return to the team at his age? I ask this because it takes a position away from one of the team’s promising linebackers, such as Anthony Chickillo, Travis Feeney, or Jordan Zumwalt. I would rather have one of these guys on the 53-man roster instead of a 38-year-old Harrison. The favoritism, which sacrifices a younger player with potential to help the team now and in the near future, has to stop.

A: You are absolutely correct. Mike Tomlin does indeed play favorites – his favorites are the guys who can play. If any of those “promising linebackers” was better than James Harrison, that “promising linebacker” would be playing instead of him. Plain and simple. But the fact is that Harrison is better, and so the Steelers will continue to have a spot for him on the roster and in the lineup.

When one is in a position of authority, with the say over whether people are hired, how they are utilized, and so on, charges of favoritism are pretty much inevitable.

It works both ways, of course. Several players during Mike Tomlin’s tenure as Head Coach of the Steelers have been said to be in his “doghouse.” Others seem to be favorites, either publicly or among the informed minority.

One example of the latter was LeGarrette Blount, whose short-lived tenure with the Steelers ended abruptly mid-season. Blount came into the Steelers’ locker room with a reputation of being somewhat of a “locker room cancer,” although as is usual with such allegations I never saw much evidence put forth to support it.

But we all knew it was Blount in the back seat of the car Le’Veon Bell was driving, a car which contained at least two other blunts, apparently. This got Bell suspended for the first few games of 2015, and probably didn’t go down too well with folks in the front office.  It isn’t so much that Bell shouldn’t be expected to have the sense not to a) be smoking dope on the way to the airport to fly out for a game, or b) to at least not be driving the car if he was going to do so. It’s just that Blount certainly knew better, and as a supposed friend and teammate as well as the older and more experienced guy should be making sure Bell wasn’t being stupid.

It wasn’t even this which got Blount cut, however, but his “quitting on the team” when he publically sulked about his lack of touches in a mid-season game. And despite all this, the word from some of the beat reporters was that Blount was a favorite of Mike Tomlin, who got a kick out of him.

I assume Blount was cut not because Mike Tomlin disliked him but because “the locker room,” or at least some members of it, felt Blount couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be kept after such a display. It was apparently a case of Mike Tomlin sacrificing his personal inclinations for the greater good.

And of course this is how it works with a good coach. You can’t help liking some of your players more than others—something I touched on in an earlier article. But if you want to win, you have to put these personal feelings aside, to the extent it is possible for any of us. This is why you select your position coaches and coordinators carefully—to have a backup set of eyes to tell you when your perceptions are being clouded by personal likes or dislikes.

As I searched for some studies or other information on the psychology of favoritism, almost all of the material I encountered had to do with favoritism in youth sports, either from the standpoint of the effect on the players or merely telling coaches that having favorites is a bad thing. I guess the idea is that once a player is being paid the big bucks in professional sports they can just suck it up.

And of course the equation is more complicated in youth sports. Depending on the area, the parents, and the general culture, other considerations may take a certain amount of precedent over winning. But overt favoritism at the professional level is still going to have an effect on the players and the morale.

Ivan has powerfully argued, and I concur, that money is a rather poor motivator of human behavior, at least when you get well beyond the amounts needed for basic survival. Especially when you consider how young football players are, it seems certain that the thought of how much money they are making is not going to substitute for the need for approval almost everyone wants to have from those in authority—especially when said authority is highly respected in their field.

The problem is, it is scarcely possible not to have favorites. Conversely, it’s quite difficult not to dislike at least the occasional player. The trick is to be aware of the feelings and to realize that they may color your behavior if you aren’t careful. And interestingly enough, the coaches who manage to be perceived as not having favorites, rare though they be, are then perceived as “cold,” which isn’t good either.

Through my many years as a choral conductor I had to deal with these unconscious biases. I couldn’t help but have them, but tried not to let them affect my decision-making. One of the more obvious and public decisions one makes is who you give solos. At first, when I was young and ignorant, I would hold auditions for solo work, on the assumption this would increase the perception that I was choosing fairly.

I eventually learned that no matter how you select soloists you are going to be perceived as unfair at least some of the time. Part of the reason is, the decision can almost never be based solely on who sounded the “best” on a given excerpt. For one thing, “who sounds the best” is, to a certain extent, a matter of personal taste, assuming all the candidates are capable of actually executing the notes. But a lot of other factors go into the decision.

How experienced is the auditionee at solo work? A person who has been almost exclusively a choral singer may freeze up due to the stress of singing alone. How good is their rhythm, and how cool are they under pressure? You don’t want them coming in at the completely wrong spot, which creates problems for everyone and can happen more easily than you might think. There are numerous possible considerations that go into these decisions which may be opaque to the average observer.

So I learned to just assign solos, and only auditioned if I was genuinely uncertain about who would be best for a given piece. I was probably going to get flak either way, and not auditioning saved me a lot of time and trouble. The funny thing was, though, that overall I got a lot less criticism when I did it that way. I don’t know whether people just figured there was no point in complaining, but it worked out a lot better in the end.

One of the things I’ve discovered in going to Steelers training camps is, there are always a few camp sensations each year. In a sense, we attendees feel we are auditioning the guys down on the field, and we have a lot of opinions about what we see.

Sometimes we are right, and a camp sensation will go on to actually be sensational, like Antonio Brown. Sometimes they get their opportunity and turn out to just be an ordinary guy, like Isaac Redman. Or sometimes they just go down in fan history as a guy who “never got a proper chance.” The problem is, we don’t see these guys in enough depth to know what’s really going on.

The coaching staff does. I’m not saying they always see completely correctly. Sometimes I’m guessing they take the easiest or safest option. In most situations, a proven veteran is an easier call, and few will question it unless they have a vested interest in one of the alternatives.

But sometimes a player’s present production is colored by what they have done before. In the case of an iconic player like James Harrison, is this what is happening?

This is certainly possible, despite Labriola’s assertion. It takes a while to see things in someone with whom you are intimately familiar that might be much more obvious to someone who doesn’t know him at all. But in a sense a player like Harrison has earned a certain amount of the benefit of the doubt. So perhaps the coaches ran Harrison out more times than they planned at the expense of other players who should have been getting playing time. But perhaps it was just a matter of the level of trust Not being high enough with the alternatives.  Perhaps they knew Harrison was not the DPOY-caliber player he had been in previous seasons, but they knew he wasn’t likely to screw things up because he didn’t know his assignments, either. So much about coaching is a matter of balancing out conflicting priorities.

The one thing I’m sure of is that James Harrison is not going to be on the Steelers roster much longer. It’s really difficult to see him playing beyond the 2016 season. In fact, how much playing time he gets in 2016 is almost directly dependent upon the development of some of those young guys mentioned by the questioner, and perhaps someone else not currently on the radar at all.

Do coaches have favorites? Of course. Did I invariably make the correct decision about who should get the solos? Almost certainly not. But on the other hand I never chose someone who ruined a performance because they were not capable of performing the solo to a more-than-adequate level. And sometimes, when the performance wasn’t everything it should have been, it was because I didn’t have anyone on my “roster” at that point who could have done a more credible job. I’m quite certain this is a problem Mike Tomlin struggles with from time to time. Where the blame for that should be assigned can be debated. But in the end you can only work with the guys you’ve got, like it (or them), or not.




  • An important point is that this isn’t just about the potential bias of the coach/evaluator, but also that of the critic/observer. In the case of Harrison, age is a favorite variable that is used as a substitute for facts on the ground. Harrison is old, therefore he supposedly is less competent or brings less value than a younger player. There are elements to the argument that aren’t completely baseless. Age is almost always a terminal illness for the highly competitive athlete. But because of a lack of proper discernment a player like Deebo can (and was) written off years before his actual expiration.

    On the other hand some attribute potential to a younger player that may or may not ever manifest, or even worse was never there in the first place other than in the fevered imagination of the beholder. Are players like Ziggy Hood or Jarvis Jones busts (or potential busts), or were the expectations around them wildly unrealistic to begin with?

    What the questioner was really presenting to Labriola was negative criticism of the coach because his biases didn’t align with that of the questioner, not that he was biased.


  • Good article. As you say, bias is going to impact coaches’ decisions, whether we like it or not. It is easy to see with a “Wear your emotions on your sleeve” type coach like Bill Cowher. But Chuck Noll, about a cerebral as you can get as a head coach in the NFL, was just as if not more guilty. He hung on to many of his Super Bowl veterans too long (there’s the famous case of keeping Dwight White instead of Dawine Board, but there are certainly other cases.)

    When the Steelers were making the transition from Cowher to Tomlin, Bob Labriola pointed out that players like Willie Reid and Anthony Smith would get a very different look from Tomlin, simply because Tomlin had no emotional skin in the game, so to speak, when it came to having drafted those players.

    Heck, think back to your own reporting you’ve done on the Steelers.

    The Steelers drafted Keenan Lewis in 2009 and Lewis had done little but disappoint in his first two seasons. As you reported, Carnell Lake came in and had been told “He can’t do this, he can’t do that….” yet Lake, absent his own bias, gave Lewis a fair sake, and Lewis thrived under his tutelage


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