Why I Care About Sports: They are a Metaphor for the Workplace

Posted on February 20, 2013 by


I wrote about why I, and by proxy we, as adults in American society, cared about sports before.  I was a bit negativish in ultimately saying that I cared about sports mostly because sports has storylines rife with hateable or loveable characters.  I suggested that community organizations or NGOs or other people trying to do good and gain exposure try to come up with these hateable or loveable characters within their organizations to ‘hook’ or rather ‘engage’ people into their work.

Well, here is another stab at the same big, broad question of why do I (and by proxy adult American males) care about sports:  I care about sports because the characters involved, from the players to the coaches to management and ownership, to the fact that results of the collective efforts by these characters, are all a metaphor for what we experience the most:  the social environments and milieus of our workplaces.

The sports you see on TV, social media, for anyone dialed in, are all one big metaphor for our workplaces. 

In other words, how we talk about people in sports, is generally how we talk about people in work as if you yourself were a manager.

Everyone gets to imagine themselves as a manager/critic in sports, and it requires no more than you simply watching the game, and then imagining what could be done to improve the current situation if the situation wasn’t ideal already.

We see products being produced.  The products in sports are those teams and/or athletes being built.

We have our eye on employees who are just sucking up resources and appear to play office politics.  In sports we complain about players who are too expensive and/or seen as “cancers” to “team chemistry.”

In both workplaces and sports, we recognize those who work hard at their own expense, and seem to be unseen, and hope that they too can be seen, but usually not at the expense of the overall team’s production.

If the product is good, i.e. winning games, we congratulate a player (associate, the labor), coaches, general managers, athletic directors (management) or ownership. Usually the congratulations is universal, distributed based on whoever fan perceives to have made the most substantial contributions.

If the product produced is bad, i.e., losing games, people will approach blame by lashing out at whoever they never really liked.  When the product is bad, people will make all kinds of judgments, usually based on either player, management, or ownership’s deficits — deficits in comparison with an ideal model of what they might already have in mind.

What does this all mean?  Why is this important?

Because it shows just how interconnected, structured, and consistent our thinking and decisionmaking processes actually are. We don’t just suddenly put on our demarcated “sports thinking caps” or “working thinking caps.”

It’s a bit off-putting whenever I read or hear someone say in reaction to the politics and social implications of a movie, “it’s just a movie.”  No it’s not.  Movies are framed a certain way and I think can gently frame you to think and engage in certain ways.  I think the same process happens in sports, and that thinking then extends to the everyday, the workplace.

That sports are a metaphor for the workplace is not a new idea, least it doesn’t seem so.  I got the idea from reading a paper by Jacob Day on NFL hiring practices.  It seems like that within this discipline they’ve employed the idea of players, coaches, management,  as examination of the state of ‘labor’ for a while now.