13 Types of Sports Team Chemistry Killers
Team chemistry is overrated until it isn't.
It's naive to assume that every locker room or clubhouse exists in a general state of harmony, because no workplace can possibly be free from strife.
While the majority of people who work together manage to do so amicably, there are certainly co-workers who don't get along with each other.
And as long as things are running smoothly, the guy who is needlessly confrontational in meetings is easily tolerated. But, when a big account is lost or a contract bid comes up short...a relatively easy truce becomes an explosive powder keg.
In sports, the same dynamic exists: Winning makes everything easier. However, when the L's start to outnumber the W's (or when it at least seems like things are going that direction) locker room chemistry transforms from comfortable cliche to unwelcomed narrative—one the media loves and that team's fanbase loves to get worked up over.
When locker room chemistry reaches the flash point, there seem to be certain personalities, even archetypes, who can turn an ember into a forest fire.
Whether money makes them tick or it's just good old fashioned crazy...these are the biggest types of chemistry killers in team sports.
The Wannabe Celebrity Guy
Professional athletes are celebrities in their own right. Most aren’t nationally known at a movie star level, but have some level of local or regional recognition among fans. For the guys whose level of celebrity easily transcends most everyone within a given sport, there’s a fine line that must be walked.
There are some guys that have no problem maintaining their relationships in the locker room while maintaining their celebrity status. LeBron James, Drew Brees, David Beckham, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, and Tom Brady are a few that come to mind.
Of course, their success at maintaining a perceived balance could have something to do with longstanding records of demonstrating success. Guys like Tony Romo and Johnny Manziel can’t sneeze in public during the offseason without generating a dozen negative headlines.
Either way, such a massive imbalance in star power always has potential to create tension within a locker room.
The Rookie Drafted to Replace a Popular Veteran Guy
After starting quarterback Tommy Maddox went down with an injury in September 2004, Steelers veteran offensive guard Alan Faneca was asked if he was excited about the prospect of blocking for a rookie suddenly starting behind center.
“Exciting?” replied Faneca to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, “No, it’s not exciting. Do you want to go work with some little young kid who’s just out of college? Everybody’s got to help out, got to do a little more, do a little extra, take that extra step, put the extra work in this week and rally around him and help out.”
Considering rookies come in every season for the sole purpose of replacing veterans, it’s safe to assume Faneca’s words about the rookie named Roethlisberger who replaced Maddox represent a sentiment regularly expressed inside an NFL locker room when a first-year player is asked to assume some significant responsibility.
The only difference is that Faneca decided to take it public, making it a double chemistry killer.
The Richie Incognito Guy
Call him a rabble-rouser or call him a bully, Richie Incognito was front and center of the kind of destructive scandal that could permeate any locker room.
His unacceptable treatment of former teammate Jonathan Martin has been well documented and was serious enough to force Martin to leave the Dolphins last season and check himself into a mental health facility on the other side of the country.
To the outside world Incognito’s behavior was inexcusable, which is why he was placed on indefinite suspension and later jettisoned by the Dolphins. But there were a substantial number of teammates and fellow NFL players, both current and retired, who jumped to Incognito’s defense, insisting the whole thing amounted to nothing more than typical locker room hijinks.
Of course, Martin also had his share of defenders. The fact that so many people were eager to take sides in the situation is indicative of a problem more widespread than the NFL would care to admit. It also hints at a lack of organizational control by coaches within such perennially flailing franchises as the Dolphins.
The Not Earning His Paycheck Guy
For the most part, athletes stand strong in supporting each other’s right to get paid. “Just pay the man!” is a common sentiment expressed on Twitter from athletes within a given league during offseason pay disputes.
Bloated individual salaries alone aren’t enough to cause chemistry-killing strife—if they were, professional sports as a whole would be in some serious trouble. The problems arise when someone who got paid, perhaps a bit more than he’s worth, treats the money as an end point.
There have been plenty of athletes whose production fell off a cliff after a major payday, but former NFL defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth puts them all to shame. In March 2009 the Washington Redskins signed him to a seven-year deal worth $100 million—three years later he was out of football.
His inability to make nice with then-Washington head coach Mike Shanahan was one thing. But Haynesworth's assertion that expecting him to earn his paycheck was akin to slavery couldn’t have sat well even with his teammates, let alone the Washington front office.
Of course, playing for the perennially dysfunctional Redskins meant there was little chemistry to kill.
The Cheater Guy
The Cheater Guy negatively impacts team chemistry because once he’s caught and outed as a cheater, it reflects poorly on everyone around him. Although, with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, this is something athletes and organizations try to keep in house.
That doesn’t mean problems don’t exist.
When it comes to steroids, we have absolutely no way of knowing how many people are/were actually using, but there’s a certain segment of the population that is very committed to following rules. And rule-followers often disdain cheaters, particularly when the latter is rewarded for bad behavior.
The same sentiment applies in college sports, where higher-profile players are often rewarded with illegal (by NCAA standards) fringe benefits or allowed to shirk academic responsibilities. Again, it’s not something that’s ever discussed publicly, but when a program is slapped with sanctions stemming from the actions of just a few, that the guys playing it straight would be susceptible to feeling resentment is understandable.
The Scamming on Your Lady Guy
This one is dicey to talk about because most rumored athlete affairs, particularly when they involve the wife or girlfriend of a teammate, never get beyond the rumor stage. Teams and the people directly involved all have a vested interest in shutting that kind of discussion down.
That being said, there is at least one salacious teammate cheating scandal in recent years that went well beyond the gossip stage. That being, of course, Spurs point guard Tony Parker alleged textual affair with Erin Barry, the wife of former teammate Brent Barry.
Although Mrs. Barry denied it, she also filed for divorce not long after the story broke. Actress Eva Longoria eventually divorced Parker—she certainly has never denied the allegations. In 2008 Barry opted out of his contract with the Spurs and signed with the Rockets.
Can’t blame Barry for bailing. This kind of thing would be a ridiculously toxic presence in the locker room—anger builds, people take sides, rumors spread.
Not a good working environment.
The Injured AGAIN Guy
This one isn’t particularly fair, given that no athlete chooses to be injured, let alone chronically injured. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t seriously screw with a team’s chemistry and impact its overall success.
When someone like Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose or St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford goes down with two consecutive season-ending injuries, the impact is felt well beyond their absence in the lineup.
Rose’s salary represents almost one third of Chicago’s total payroll, all of it being guaranteed. Not only are the Bulls without one of the best players in the league when Rose is sidelined, but their ability to replace him is hindered because the money just isn’t there. And there’s no question this team hasn’t been the same without him.
Bradford suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the Rams' third preseason game, ending his 2014 season before it began. It is a similar injury to the same knee that knocked him out last year at midseason.
Bradford was selected No. 1 overall in 2010, the last class prior to implementation of the rookie wage scale, which means he’s been one of the highest-paid players in the league for years, despite having accomplished relatively little on the field.
The Will He or Won't He Retire Guy
Obviously the Brett Favre saga is the first thing that comes to mind here because nobody has done it, or probably ever will do it, quite like he did. Favre’s potential retirement became an annual event—he told the Vikings he would retire in August 2010 before being coaxed out of his Mississippi hidey-hole by teammates for one last season.
That’s not to say Favre is the only athlete to keep a team in a holding pattern. Knowing when to walk away and actually being able to walk away when the time comes are two entirely different things. There have been plenty of guys who stuck around a season or more too long, and often it’s to the detriment of the team.
The Me-Me Guy
In a team sport, there are few things more detrimental to the overall health of a unit than when a single athlete decides he is the most important person in any room and on any field—and then acts in accordance with that belief.
Terrell “I love me some me” Owens was one of the most talented and productive wide receivers in NFL history—he’s currently ranked behind only Jerry Rice all time in receiving yards. Yet none of the six teams he played for in his career were sad to see him go.
Every sport has a handful of me-first guys, but no one ever did more damage to team chemistry in less time than Owens did, particularly in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas.
The Always Arrested Guy
An athlete arrest can mess with team chemistry in a number of ways. First, there’s the obvious impact of any absence stemming from the arrest, including time actually spent behind bars and additional time missed from any subsequent suspensions.
Second, there’s the threat of the always dreaded distraction. Athletes and coaches are endlessly peppered with questions by the media, who jump on any opportunity to avoid being peppered back with talking points. Time spent discussing an athlete’s run-in with the law is usually time wasted.
And finally, there’s the personal impact the arrest (or arrests) have on a player's teammates. Answering questions about a DUI is one thing, but trying to reconcile how a friend and teammate became involved in a more serious or heinous crime (Rae Carruth, Aaron Hernandez, for example) can be an immense drain on a locker room.
The Demanding Diva Guy
The Demanding Diva is guy who makes a lot of money and scores a lot of points, but doesn’t win a lot of championships.
They’re also coach-killers—too good to get rid of but not special enough to warrant much of the offending behavior. Although great in a vacuum, they tend to come up lacking compared to some other stars in the game.
Take, for instance, Alex Ovechkin in the NHL and Carmelo Anthony in the NBA. Ovechkin and Anthony have been prolific scorers throughout their careers, even though their teams have mostly underachieved. At this point their supporting casts and coaches have changed many times over, but the number of championships between them still stands at zero.
Comparable counterparts like Sidney Crosby and Kobe Bryant have been through a few coaching and roster changes over the years, but the position of each as the face of his franchise still has never been in doubt. Unlike Ovi and Melo, Crosby for example doesn’t put respective organization in a position where it has to choose sides, which is the ultimate chemistry killer.
The Taking It to the Media Guy
Whether they do it anonymously or have the cojones to actually attach their name to it, an athlete who goes to the media to air in-house grievances is guaranteed to kill team chemistry. That’s assuming there’s any remaining, because the season is usually in the toilet by the time this happens.
Any team can fall victim to this sort of thing, but the Jets under Rex Ryan have been particularly prone to media venting. It reached a fever pitch in 2012, a year that began with an unidentified Jets player calling quarterback Mark Sanchez out as “lazy.” Later that season backup Tim Tebow was derided by another anonymous source as “terrible.”
One could argue that the Jets were listening to these anonymous sources, whom they publicly denied existed, by drafting Geno Smith No. 39 overall in the 2013 NFL draft. Smith went on to become the subject of the exact same type of nameless, faceless criticism throughout his rookie season.
Chemistry is best measured by how a team gets along when the chips are down. It’s easy to get along and make nice with everyone when you’re winning—like when the Jets went to two straight AFC Championships in 2009 and 2010. They’ve missed the playoffs the last three seasons and have been plagued with bad press, much of which has come from within the organization.
The Nobody Who Suddenly Succeeds as a Starter Guy
This is one that’s hard to see coming. Even though most nobodies that step in for a team midseason have the benefit of low expectations, very few manage to live up to the aforementioned low expectations, let alone exceed them.
The guys who does better than expected may delight the fanbase, but their short-term success can wreak havoc within a locker room. Consider what happened with Jeremy Lin playing for the Knicks in early 2012.
“Linsanity” lasted less than a month against mostly subpar opponents and largely in the absence of proven players like Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, who sporadically missed time because of injuries. Yet losing Lin in the offseason was lamented by many, who were quick to blame Anthony, as if they were comparable talents.
The same can be said for the 2013 Bears, who were faced with a conundrum after starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 4. Josh McCown, a 34-year-old journeyman, had the best stretch of his career filling in for Cutler, eventually creating a schism among those who believed it was best to go with the “hot hand,” despite Cutler’s availability.
Although these sagas tend to play themselves out in the media more than the locker room, it’s hard to imagine these guys are completely immune from prevailing public sentiment.