As far as entertainment value is concerned, the aftermath of the Ryder Cup has easily eclipsed the lopsided Ryder Cup itself. While the victorious European team has focused on sobering up, the vanquished American squad has offered sobering thoughts of varied proportions, eliciting a passive-aggressive maelstrom of finger pointing in every direction, including directly at the finger pointers’ own chests.
First there was the post-competition news conference, during which the U.S. team awkwardly sat at the dais while Phil Mickelson insisted the players had no personal investment, captain Tom Watson insisted that wasn’t the only way to win and every other team member uncomfortably squirmed in his seat. Then there was the ESPN.com report, which cited numerous sources maintaining that Watson’s team room speech on Saturday night was less fire and more brimstone, as he singled out players for not playing better. And finally – for now, at least – there was Watson’s open letter, which attempted to save face and mend fences by taking responsibility for the loss six days after the fact.
In his 1986 book "The Politics of Blame Avoidance,” author R. Kent Weaver writes: “Politicians are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid blame for unpopular actions rather than by seeking to claim credit for unpopular ones. … Incentives to avoid blame lead politicians to adopt a distinctive set of political strategies, including agenda limitation, scapegoating, ‘passing the buck’ and defection (‘jumping on the bandwagon’) that are different than those they would follow if they were primarily interested in pursuing good policy or maximizing credit-claiming opportunities.”
Watson, Mickelson and the other (mostly) silent team members aren’t politicians, but each often plays one on TV.
In six days since the red, white and blue was outclassed by blue and gold, the blame avoidance has come full circle, especially from the captain. It started with finger pointing toward others and has transformed into taking full responsibility, which in turn has already resulted in many observers reassigning that responsibility.
To (sort of) keep the political theme, this is like the modern-day golf version of the George Washington cherry tree fable. Rather than redirect blame, the story goes, the young Washington accepted responsibility for chopping down the tree. (“I cannot tell a lie,” he says in the story. “I did it with my little hatchet.”) Rather than persecuted for the offense, the boy is praised for candor. Moral of the story? Honesty is the best policy.
In the current tale, Watson essentially chopped down the tree that is the American team, waited six days, then offered his own interpretation of, “I cannot tell a lie.” Essentially, he’s hoping the candor will transcend the offense. He’s hoping that by turning the mirror on himself, others will redirect the blame for him.
Not that he is fully responsible, nor should he take full responsibility. In his open letter, Watson admitted, “I take complete and full responsibility for my communication, and I regret that my words may have made the players feel that I didn’t appreciate their commitment and dedication to winning the Ryder Cup.”
That’s noble of him – again, six days after the fact – but communication is a two-way street. If the captain didn’t communicate his message properly, then it was up to his veteran team members – nine of whom had competed in previous Ryder Cups – to communicate their reaction in response.
And therein lies the gist of this very public, very awkward blame game. Losing the competition wasn’t fully Watson’s fault, nor was it fully the players’ fault. Nobody can - or should - be singled out for failing to come together as a team better at Gleneagles, and as a result, failing to win.
There still hasn’t been anyone to publicly make this point. It didn’t happen in Mickelson’s agenda-tinged post-tournament diatribe about better strategies and a lack of personal investment; it didn’t happen in Watson’s open letter nearly a week after the loss.
Nowhere has anyone said these words: “We traveled to Scotland as a team. We practiced as a team. We meshed as a team. We miscommunicated as a team. We played poorly as a team. We blamed each other as a team. And yes, we lost as a team.”
In the entertaining aftermath of a lopsided Ryder Cup, it’s this part of the blame game which has gone noticeably missing so far. Everyone involved has pointed their finger either at each other or themselves – or both alternately.
What hasn’t happened is anyone speaking with definitive candor about responsibility. What hasn’t happened is anyone admitting, "I cannot tell a lie: We all chopped down the cherry tree. Together.”