On Klay Thompson, Lost iPods, Ken Bone, Rules And Discipline

In surfing around the Internet tonight, I happened to run across a comment thread on Facebook where people were hammering Klay Thompson for being benched at the beginning of yesterday's game, which turned out to be a devastating loss to the last place ASU Sun Devils.

If you haven't heard, Thompson said he was not in the starting lineup because he was late for the bus from the hotel to the arena. Why was he late? 

"I lost my iPod, so I was stressing there," he said when asked why he was late.

You might remember that Thompson was benched at the beginning of the UW game in Seattle last year after being similarly tardy, and I remember Bone saying (paraphrased) that he has hard-and-fast rules for certain things, and being late to team activities means you don't start.

Now, I'm all for discipline. As a teacher, it probably won't surprise you that I'm one of those idealistic people who actually believes part of what our college athletics do is create better human beings by teaching, among other things, discipline. 

However, my years as a teacher have also taught me something: That having hard-and-fast rules is rarely a good idea, because they try to introduce black-and-white solutions to problems that are rarely black and white.

Let's take this incident. While it's true that whether you're late or on time is a matter of black and white, the punishment for the infraction isn't handed out in a vacuum. It's assumed that WSU is a better basketball team with Thompson in the starting lineup, otherwise he wouldn't be in the starting lineup in every game. So, in this instance, when you punish Thompson by holding him out of the starting lineup, you're ostensibly punishing the entire team.

Let's step away for a moment from whether that's fair. I don't even like conversations about fair because, well, life ain't fair. So I could care less about whether it's fair. What I'm more concerned about is that Bone has a rigid rule that potentially negatively impacted his team's chance to win a game that could potentially be important. 

I can already hear those of you who blame Thompson. After all, shouldn't he have known where his iPod was? It's his fault he was late, no matter how you want to slice it, something I'll readily concede. But if I'm Klay Thompson, and I've misplaced an expensive piece of technology -- like, say, my Android phone -- you best believe I'm looking for that thing until I find it. Whoever's waiting for me is just going to have to wait. 

But let's say you still want to blame Thompson. Fine. We can agree that punishments are designed to correct behavior, right? If that's the case, what behavior do you think is going to be corrected from this? Do you think Klay Thompson has now learned how not to misplace anything ever again?

I'll take it even further. Let's assume Thompson did learn something from this -- that he now has the mind of a Jedi and will never misplace his iPod again thanks to being held out of the starting lineup. Was causing that little bit of growth in one individual worth potentially costing a team a game? It's possible the benching had no overall effect. But it's also possible that, in a game the Cougs ended up losing by two, Thompson's presence in the starting lineup might have been worth at least two points. 

This is a results-based business. If this was the NBA, with its endless marathon of 82 games, benching a guy for a game -- which, incidentally, is 20 percent longer, further minimizing the impact -- probably isn't a big deal. But in a 30-game season, it is a big deal. One game might be the difference between, say, making the NCAA Tournament or not making the NCAA Tournament.

We all can obviously agree that this team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament as an at large is somewhere between slim and none. But for argument's sake, let's say the Cougs win these last three regular season games. And then, let's say they play No. 3 seed UCLA in their first game of the Pac-10 Tournament and win, then play No. 2 seed UW and win, then play an epic overtime game against No. 1 Arizona before losing.

Selection Sunday rolls around ... and they're left out. They're right there ... but they've got just one too many bad losses.

Oregon was bad. Stanford was bad. But ASU? Could it have been prevented if a coach didn't feel the need to draw a line in the sand?

Obviously, this is an improbable scenario. And we'll never know the answer to that last question. But if there's even a fraction of a chance it could happen this way, don't you try to avoid that? Don't you say to your team, "Hey, I know we have a rule about being late. And trust me, Klay will be dealt with. But for the good of everything we've all been working for, Klay's going to start today. Let's go out and get a win."

I tell my students that I will never promise to be fair in my decisions, but that I will promise to treat each of them fairly as I make my decisions. What is good for one student might not be good for another, and part of my job is to figure out which buttons I need to push to get the desired outcome with each student. They just have to trust that.

I only wish Bone had given himself the same flexibility. Who knows if missing the tournament this year ends up being the thing that eventually seals his fate at this school. We just don't know, but it seems like an odd chance to take in the name of enforcing a rule in a way that is unlikely to make any kind of long-term positive difference but could have all sorts of negative consequences.

Maybe there's more to the story. Maybe Bone knows something I don't know and he felt like he just had to hold a hard line on this one, and benching his star made precisely the point he was trying to make. If that's the case, this team is a lot more messed up than any of us even begin to realize.

But if all of this is to be taken at face value, I gotta say I believe Bone made a major blunder here.

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