It’s something The Secret Footballer observed in his fifth volume of books, How To Win: Lessons from the Premier League. As a kid he was intrigued by a haunting track his father used to play in his old car cassette player: ‘Milgram 37’ from Peter Gabriel’s classic album So.
It prompted him to delve into the genesis — we could hardly say origins — of the song, upon which he learned about the work of the social psychologist, Stanley Milgram.
The Jewish New Yorker had family members who had been in the concentration camps during the Second World War, triggering him to closely follow the Nuremberg trials. Numerous Nazi criminals pleaded in their defence that they were merely following orders. To test whether there was any scientific basis to their argument, Milgram conducted an experiment in Yale University featuring subjects to find out just how far ordinary people would go to in obeying instructions from an authority figure if those instructions involve harming another person.
More recent reviews of the experiment question its validity and methodology but what Milgram concluded at the time was that the majority of subjects — 37 in one study — were willing to apply an electric shock to the maximum voltage if a fellow subject gave an incorrect or inappropriate answer, all because the overseer of the experiment would prompt or urge them to apply that next jolt. One subject, while continuing to administer the voltage, muttered to himself, “It’s got to go on, it’s got to go on”, just as Gabriel would repeatedly sing on record and in concert, “We do what we’re told, we do what we’re told”.
For some of Milgram’s volunteers, the findings of the study jolted them as severely as the electric shocks ever did. One went on to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war and later wrote to Milgram to thank him for alerting him to the need to be suspicious of authority.
Learning of the study also raised the awareness levels of The Secret Footballer. “The importance of staying true to yourself regardless of authority, and the fact that is possible to get almost anybody to do what you would like them to do if you approach them in a certain way.”
It wasn’t lost on him how the conditions in sport — especially football management — are similarly ripe for such compliance to authority, or man-in-white-coat syndrome. Players are routinely conditioned to listen and obey authority without really thinking. “Most of your day is spent taking orders from a man with a clipboard,” his co-author, The Secret Psychologist, noted in How To Win. “What weights to lift, when to get a massage, what to eat, when to practise and what to practise.”
You become compliant, uncritical. An automaton instead of being authentic.
After listening to Gabriel, The Secret Footballer’s intention wasn’t to learn how to survive such a world but how to escape. To be himself and not just follow orders or the crowd.
That’s what’s been so refreshing about a number of Irish sports figures in the spotlight recently, even if not all of them would have wanted it. To thine self they have been true, even if it hasn’t always been popular.
Everyone now loves Cian Lynch, especially after his endearing interview with Joanne Cantwell at the All Stars last Friday upon receiving the Hurler of the Year award. Heart, humility, humour: Lynch personified and personifies them all. But there have been times where not everyone would have got Cian Lynch or liked or admired everything about Cian Lynch.
Even one of his biggest champions, Jamie Wall, his old coach at Fitzgibbon, didn’t have the most favourable of first impressions.
The first time I ever saw him in person… walking around the college… and he was going around in his tracksuit, with the rats tail,” he’d recount to balls.ie’s Arthur James O’Dea. “And I was kind of looking at him, thinking, ‘What is this character like at all?!’
It hasn’t just been his hair that has made him stand out from the crowd. He doesn’t drink, while his unashamed Catholic faith wouldn’t exactly be common or trendy among his peers either.
That hasn’t been lost on Lynch. But that hasn’t deterred him either.
“For me, I just don’t think you have to conform to social norms,” he’d tell reporters last week. “I don’t think we all have to conform to those social norms.
“I’m not telling people to copy someone else or copy what I do… We’re all different people, no one person is the same as someone else.
“Religion for me and not drinking are just things that keep me grounded. It’s where I get my equilibrium.”
Katie Taylor, the subject of a recent widely-acclaimed documentary, similarly finds solace and balance in her religion, despite the jibes it occasionally draws. As private and shy as she may be, she has never been shy in being so public about her faith.
And always she has only exuded respect for everyone else. In being a pioneer and champion for the relatively-new world that’s professional women’s boxing, she has never resorted to the verbal putdowns that her fellow Irish person Conor McGregor has done in promoting himself and his relatively-new sport.
As a recent personal exchange between them suggested, she would have a genuine fondness and regard for McGregor, but perhaps not as profound as he would have for her; when he proclaimed that she was “a legend” at her last fight, even he must have been aware that one of the foundations of her legendary status is the quiet dignity with which she carries herself.
James McClean maybe hasn’t been as diplomatic or as equanimous as Taylor, or indeed as he was four years ago when he first explained why he wouldn’t wear a poppy, but his continual refusal to conform to the mob would no doubt have drawn the admiration of The Secret Footballer, our guess being that they’re not the one and the same man.
It’s worth studying again the statement McClean put out four years ago, in an address to his then club chairman, Wigan’s Dave Whelan, who approved of the publication of the letter and the player’s position. He noted how Whelan’s own grandfather, a Tipperary man, was killed in the First World War. He respected him and anyone who fought for the British army in either of those world wars.
“If the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War One and Two, I would wear one. I want to make that 100% clear. You must understand this. But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and that is where the problem starts for me.”
And consequently the problem continues for him. His detractors fail to understand or acknowledge his respect for men like Whelan and his grandfather. Subtlety and nuance are missed and dismissed.
It’s quite the irony, that what so many of those died for was so that future generations like McClean would have the freedom to express his views and individuality, and that they were fighting against a regime that enacted the Milgram principle so horridly, from Auschwitz to Dachau.
In their insistence to honour those who fought for freedom and railed against those who just did “what we’re told”, they tell a McClean what he should do.
And yet he won’t do what he’s told. He won’t conform, as expedient as it may have been.
The same goes for Colin Kapaerneck.
He’s been vilified even in this part of the world for not going along with the norms of that great big Milgram experiment, the NFL match-day experience. But like that other once-vilified objector, Muhammad Ali, he decided that he didn’t have to be who The Man wants him to be.
In sport it is so easy to be like Milgram’s 37. To foul and injure and debase an opponent, one of those feckers from down the road or across the county bounds because that’s what you’ve long or constantly been told. To blank a media outlet or commentator to feign a sense of collective unity. To not question the management or risk offending the crowd, even when a certain behaviour is in conflict with your better, true nature.
It’s one thing being a team player and another succumbing and conforming to group think. For all its rhetoric and supposed teachings, sport can create more followers than leaders, sheep rather than shepherds.
The more progressive coaches and players though have copped that groupthink and conformity are the antithesis of teamwork and success.
Paul Galvin irked traditionalists for how he carried himself on and off the pitch but after he learned to channel his aggression superbly for the second part of his career he was the ultimate team player and winner. A “disruptive thinker” was how he described and what he prided himself as, knowing that didn’t mean he had to be a disruptive influence.
Wall joyously came to the same realisation about Lynch, that he was the ultimate team player while being his own man. Just because he could stand out and alone didn’t mean he wouldn’t be there when the team needed to stand together.
“It’s 2018!” he’d tell O’Dea. “This is a way a young fella expresses himself. Young fellas are different. Paul Pogba’s haircuts are Bryan Robson’s 10 pints on a Saturday night. Instead of being grumpy old men about it, let’s just embrace it.” And with it, the likes of Taylor’s uniqueness and McClean’s unwillingness to conform and sing Milgram’s 37.