Pat Summitt, the legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach who has won more games than any other college coach ever, men’s or women’s, received test results from the Mayo Clinic at the end of May that confirmed early-onset Alzheimer’s type dementia. The irreversible brain disease is now at work destroying the 59-year-old Summitt’s abilities of recall and cognition, and as it is for the other estimated 5 million Americans with the disabling disease, the prognosis is grim.
Everyone in the Tennessee and sports community as well as the media and all of us who have seen loved ones suffer with the disease are rallying behind Summitt, who is one of the toughest, smartest, most determined figures in sports. But Coach Summitt has decided that her symptoms are not yet severe enough to force her into retirement, and she intends to stay at the helm of the Tennessee women’s basketball team at least three more years.
It is the wrong decision. It is a selfish and unethical decision. The question is whether anyone will have the courage to try to convince Summitt that she has a duty to the team, the school, her own legacy and basic principles of ethics to change course and do the right thing. Quit.
Summitt says she will be continue to coach while giving her staff more responsibilities, even allowing them to call the plays in the game, while she focuses on motivating and teaching. This tells us everything we need to know, does it not? She knows she can no longer perform the duties of a head coach, and thus should step down as head coach. She can be a coach emeritus, or a consultant, or something else, but a leader cannot delegate away core duties and still be a leader in anything but name only. In addition, her plan is profoundly unfair to the assistant coaches who will be doing large chunks of her job, not that any would dare complain. Who will be accountable for bad decisions and controversial losses? A coach suffering from an illness affecting her reasoning ability can’t be blamed for bad decisions, especially ones she personally doesn’t make. The authority, responsibility and accountability essential to the job of being a head coach will be muddled by delegation and diffusion.
It will also be muddled by sentiment. Sentiment has no part in professional pursuits and leadership, and when it is given a role, the result is almost always catastrophic. In 1985, Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser managed his team to a World Series victory. The next season, he found himself becoming confused during games, and was examined by doctors. They found that Howser had inoperable brain cancer. He was absent from the dugout for the rest of the season taking futile radiation treatments, but announced in 1987 that he wanted to keep managing as long as he could. The drama of a man with terminal cancer trying to manage a contending baseball team overshadowed everything else the Royals did, though the team was regarded as having a good shot at another championship. Howser didn’t make it out of spring training, abandoning the job when he became to weak, and the Royals had to adjust to a new manager just as the season was getting ready to begin. (They also had a disappointing record. Howser died that June.)
Lou Gehrig did it the right way. The New York Yankee great was in the midst of his famous “iron man” consecutive game playing streak (later surpassed by Cal Ripken, Jr.) when he found his skills and coordination suddenly and mysteriously deteriorating. Gehrig knew there was something physically wrong, but the Yankees were winning even with him being unable to contribute, and Gehrig knew he could stay in the line-up as long as he wanted to. Gehrig didn’t want to, however; not when he was unable to do his best. He took himself out of the line-up and was soon diagnosed with the incurable and fatal illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He never played again, and thus never put his team, its fans, or the team’s sportswriters into the position of having to argue that he was no longer qualified to be the Yankee clean-up hitter.
Gehrig’s illness also figures in a recent example of a declining leader harming his life’s work by being unable to retire gracefully. Last month the Muscular Dystrophy Association announced that it was removing Jerry Lewis, now infirm and 85, as the host of the annual MDA Labor Day Telethon, which raises millions for medical research to cure the various forms of muscular dystrophy, including ALS. Jerry Lewis has served as the telethon’s host since the very first telethon, in the 50’s. In recent years, Lewis’s poor health and advanced age had rendered him an unsteady, unfunny and archaic host at best, and contributed to the decline of the program’s ratings and fundraising success.
First it was announced that Lewis would only make a brief appearance on the 2011 show, which would be his farewell. It appears that Lewis reneged on this arrangement, however, and when the comedian gave an interview denying that the 2011 telethon would be his last, he was, in essence, fired. The apparent ingratitude of a charitable organization removing the single individual most responsible for its success is proving to be a public relations disaster for the telethon, but it was Lewis’s refusal to face reality and be responsible that created the conflict, and harmed the cause that he regards as the greatest achievement of his career.
The most courageous act by any leader is to give up power when the leader knows that he or she can no longer meet the obligations of the job. This isn’t easy by any means, and when the situation occurs during what should be the leader’s prime, as with Summitt, Howser, Gehrig, and Rep. Giffords, the added bad fortune and injustice of it will naturally prompt the urge to fight, to refuse to give up. The fallacy of that course is that the fight itself takes the leader away from his or her real responsibilities. Whether it is the natural diminishment of ability and skills through the aging process, an injury, as with Giffords, or illness, as with Summitt, that fact is that the leader is not able to perform as before, and while accumulated good will and institutional loyalty may allow such a leader to stay on as if that were not the case, the leader’s appropriate and ethical act is to resign….before a single game is lost or crisis mishandled because of the disability.
Coach Summitt has given her life to the Lady Vols, and before it is too late, she needs to be persuaded that her insistence on staying coach can only harm them. Her dementia is sure to dominate any coverage of the team; every in-game descion will lead to speculation on the progress of the disease. The sports media will have ongoing articles and dueling columns about compassion, and how some things are more important than winning games, and how the school owes her the opportunity to decide when she can’t coach any more. Ultimately, the team will suffer.
The ethical act is for Pat Summitt to spare everyone, and herself, that scenario. She has been a great basketball coach, perhaps the greatest. In the midst of a personal tragedy, she needs to rise to a selfless and brave decision, for the good of the team and school she loves, but also to give all of us a lesson in leadership.
Great leaders know when to leave. I am hoping that this great leader will eventually realize that for her, the time is now.