Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Millennial Athlete

I read a recent post on Neil Howe's Lifecourse Blog about a possible shift in the ethics of sports brought on by a generational shift in athletes from Generation X to Millennials. Citing an inspiring story published in the New York Times about Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and his focus on charity work instead of lucrative NFL contracts, and citing his own work with executives at sports companies, Howe argues that a change is coming.

In contrast to the young man profiled in this story, I believe that Generation X (born 1961-1981) athletes have celebrated a me-first, winning-is-everything attitude over the tenure of their athletically active years.

Howe credits Generation X with leading sports over the past twenty years into performance enhancing drugs and the innate desire to crush one's opponents. Millennials like Tebow, Howe seems to imply, are motivated by something other than winning, and seek to use their positions of athletic role models to refocus those around them on more altruistic pursuits.

I look forward with great interest to see where Millennial (born 1982-200?) take professional sports.

Okay. First, I have to admit, I don't know much about sports and sports figures. Prior to reading the article Howe pointed me to, I had never even heard of Tim Tebow. But I find Howe's hypothesis (and I think that's all we can fairly call it at this point) fascinating. It almost makes me want to start reading the sports page.

The Hourglass Blog is all about exploring generations and leadership in associations and society. My own area of interest is what I call the "leadership challenge of Generation X"—namely, will GenX step up to fill the oft-predicted leadership void left by retiring Boomers and, if so, how will their starkly different generational perspective reshape the organizations they lead and the society they serve.

If Howe is right, then professional sports teams may prove an interesting case study for what happens when one generation takes over the leadership reins from another—in this case Millennials from Xers instead of Xers from Boomers.

But is Howe right? Millennials will undoubtedly put their unique stamp on professional sports, the same way they'll put their stamp on everything else they decide to get involved with.

But did winning at all costs really start with Generation X? Wasn't it Vince Lombardi (born 1913) who famously told his 1959 Packers that "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing"? And according to this researcher, Lombardi might have gotten that idea from Henry ‘Red’ Sanders (born 1905) football coach at Vanderbilt and UCLA, who might have gotten it from University of Illinois coach Bob Zuppke (born 1879), who might have gotten it from University of Michigan football coach Fielding Yost (born 1871).

We hear a lot of hype (here and here, for example) about how Millennials are destined to take over the world earlier than any previous generation and reshape it in their own image and for the betterment of all humankind. Well, I say if Millennials are capable of making such fundamental changes like taking the pursuit of winning out of sports, then GenX really should just step aside and let them take over.


Post a Comment