Those of you who follow American football know that the NFL’s Detroit Lions … well, there’s just no nice way to say this. They stink. I’m not talking a mild odor here either — think of an overflowing diaper pail. They played sixteen games this season and didn’t win any of them, the first team in league history ever to do that. They were the first team to not win a single game since the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a brand new team made up of other squads’ castoffs whose own coach said, when asked about his team’s execution, “I’m in favor of it.” (They finished 0-14; the season was shorter then.) The 2008 Lions have been a laughingstock’s laughingstock, a staple of comedy monologues. They’ve been a team so poorly run that even some of their own fans (including Jemele Hill, one of the top writers for ESPN.com) were openly rooting for them to go 0-16 because maybe it would force drastic changes in how the franchise was operated. And they’ve been bad for years, so much so that their rooters rejoiced when the team’s president was fired three weeks into the season.
The canned executive was Matt Millen, a longtime all-pro linebacker, then an announcer and host for football programs. Millen had no experience running a team before the Lions hired him to do just that eight years ago, and it was generally thought to be an odd choice even then. Eight losing seasons later, it still looks like an odd choice, and a bad one besides.
So last Saturday, I was watching NBC’s pre-game show before the first game of the NFL playoffs, and the host announced that Matt Millen would be on in a few minutes. That raised my eyebrows. They went to a commercial, and when they came back, the camera was focused on an empty part of the studio, in which sat Matt Millen and one of NBC’s team of anchors, Dan Patrick. No tables, no screens, nowhere to hide. It hit me that this wasn’t going to be Matt Millen giving his analysis of the playoff teams (though actually that would come later), but Matt Millen in a one-on-one discussion that would likely touch on his reign as one of the least successful football execs ever. So I settled in, getting ready for what might be the most uncomfortable interview in the history of professional football.
What I got instead was a revelation.
If you like, you can watch the entire interview here; it runs a little over three minutes. Credit to Dan Patrick — while he’s not exactly Mike Wallace when it comes to interviews, he did get straight to the point. He started out talking about how the Lions had fired Millen, about the team’s lack of success under his tenure, culminating in the 0-16 season, and got Millen’s reaction to the debacle. Then he asked Millen “how responsible were you, for this season and for the last eight years there?”
Here’s Millen’s answer:
“Oh, completely responsible. I mean, you’re head of football operations … you throw it back on me. I mean, you can say something about the coaching, you can say something about … about the players, but inevitably I’m responsible for them, and so I’m completely responsible for it, in my mind.”
And that wasn’t all. As the interview continued, Millen admitted that:
- in some areas, he was not qualified to be in that position and hadn’t understood all that the job entailed when he’d been hired.
- he had failed to provide the stability and consistency the team needed, both in the playing roster and the coaching staff.
- he would have fired himself due to poor performance (though he would have waited until the season’s end)
Throughout the interview, Millen refused to make excuses, and while he said he could give the reasons he had for the moves he’d made, he wouldn’t do so because they would sound self-justifying. In essence, he came out and told the world, “folks, I failed. It wasn’t the fault of the players, because I chose those players. It wasn’t the fault of the coaches — I chose them too. It’s not the owner’s fault — he trusted me to do the job well, and I didn’t. It’s not even the media’s fault; I was running the team, not them. If the team stinks, it’s on me, and I got what I deserved.”
How refreshing is that? A guy goes down in flames, in full public view — that seems to happen on a daily basis these days. But instead of blaming the media, the other party, his parents, his “personal trainer”, his players, his bosses or the alignment of the planets, instead of making excuses, portraying himself as a martyr for some cause or claiming that history will judge him more fairly, he simply says (on live TV, no less), “you know what? I blew it. I screwed this up. I took the fall, and I deserved to.”
This goes counter to most of recent history when it comes to public scandals and failures. Face facts, when someone gets caught with their ethics down nowadays, what do they do? Nixon stonewalled about Watergate. Reagan feigned ignorance of Iran-Contra. Clinton tried to re-define the word “is”. Roger Clemens blamed his trainer, his teammates, his best friend and even his wife. Michael Vick and Marion Jones swore up and down that they were innocent (before pleading guilty). Even after the scandals had passed and they had received (or dodged) punishment, most of the above continued to make excuses and justifications.
You may not realize this, but most of the people who went to jail in the Watergate mess didn’t do so because they were involved in the actual break-in. Most of them — Haldeman, Ehrlichmann, Magruder, that whole lot — went to jail for obstruction of justice. Charles Colson, hauled in as part of the Watergate investigation, went to jail for obstruction of justice in the Ellsberg affair. All of these guys served time, not because they broke into an office, but because they covered up the truth. Because they didn’t come clean and say, “my fault, I messed up, I sinned.”
There’s even a political precedent for coming clean. In 1884, Grover Cleveland, the bachelor governor of New York, was the Democratic nominee for President of the U.S. In mid-campaign, word got out that Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock (with a young widow) a decade before, when he’d been mayor of Buffalo. The scandal threatened to blow his campaign to pieces, and his handlers asked him what they should do. He didn’t play the “I did not have sex with that woman” card — instead he said, “Above all, tell the truth.”
And they did. Cleveland publicly admitted the affair, acknowledged that he was the child’s father and was financially supporting both the kid and his mom. His candor won over many staunch Republicans (including Mark Twain) and probably ended up winning him the election and making him the first Democratic president in 28 years.
How much simpler would life be if everyone did what Cleveland or Millen did? Imagine if George W. Bush (a guy I voted for twice, and regretted voting for once), instead of repeating “mission accomplished” over and over, had addressed the nation and said, “folks, I had intel saying that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and intel saying he didn’t, and I chose to believe the lie. I thought he was backing al-Qaeda, now I can see that he wasn’t. And I was swayed by the thought of finishing what my daddy started over there. So I sent troops into a country we had no need to invade, I put our people in danger for what’s now clearly a wild goose chase. The fault is mine, and I’m going to do everything I can to make it right — right for our country, for our troops and for the Iraqi people.” How much of the vitriol of the last four years would’ve drained away?
Imagine if Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire had called a press conference and told everyone, “I’m an aging ballplayer, my body’s starting to run down, and I wanted to keep playing and making big money. So I took steroids. I’m not blaming anyone else — I made the choice. I knew they were illegal, but I was hoping to get away with it because Major League Baseball wasn’t testing for them yet. But I didn’t get away with it, and now my career is in the toilet. I’m guilty as charged, and hopefully I’ve learned my lesson to follow the rules. I will co-operate with federal investigators, and if they determine I deserve further punishment, I’ll take it like a man.” McGwire would probably be in the Hall of Fame now, and comedians would have been deprived of hundreds of needle and “third ear” jokes.
Imagine if Jimmy Swaggart had simply told people he was a sex addict, took a leave of absence from his pulpit and gotten counseling. Imagine if (fill in name of pastor here) had been willing to be open with his struggles with (fill in sin/addiction here) and seek help, instead of portraying himself as a paragon of virtue while his problems devoured him from the inside. Imagine if Protestant leaders admitted that while they don’t agree with all of Catholic doctrine, that doesn’t mean the Roman Church isn’t Christian, or that its members aren’t. (Or vice-versa, for that matter.) How much of the religious strife of the last several hundred years would we have been spared?
There is freedom in admitting you’re wrong that goes beyond your own soul. Several years ago, I got into some serious sin. (I’m not prepared to talk about it in this forum — yet; the day is coming — but my friends and family know what happened.) Broken by my failure, I went to see a pastor I knew for counseling. Instead of lecturing me about my sin, he started talking about his own. I’ll never forget his words: “There is power that comes from standing up in front of a roomful of people and saying, ‘Hi … my name is ______, and I’m an alcoholic.’ ” I had never known that about him, would never have known had I not been exposed for the sinner I was. His vulnerability and openness allowed me to be vulnerable and open, which in turn enabled me to start dealing honestly with my sin and everything that had led up to it. He had gotten freedom, and because of that he could open the door to freedom for me.
I’m not leading a life of sinless perfection now — Philippians 1:6 says that won’t happen until “the day of Christ Jesus” — but I’m sinning a whole lot less than I used to, and I’m hurting myself and the people around me a whole lot less. And it all comes back to admitting that, like the old spiritual says, “it’s me, oh Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.” My sins are my fault, and I’m the one that has to own up to them. That’s step one on the road to change.
So kudos to you, Matt Millen, for being a stand-up guy. And I wish you the best as you head back to the broadcast booth, or wherever. You’ve set a good example for all of us.
(Though if I were you, I wouldn’t apply for any general manager jobs. Know your limitations.)