The Saracens revolution wasn’t total BS

Whenever you parade your ethics, there’s a risk it will come back and bite you in the categorical imperative.

Think of John Major preaching ‘back to basics’, shortly before the Conservative party dissolved into smut and sleaze.

Or the fact ethics professors are apparently no more ethical than the rest of us, and ethics books are more likely to be stolen from libraries.

Or every tech company from Google to Apple who’ve given TED talks on how they ‘make the world a better place’ while not owning the ways they’ve made it worse.

All of this may explain the glee some express at what’s happening at Saracens rugby club.

Saracens are the English and European champions, and the most successful team in English rugby history.

They’ve just been deducted 70 points for cheating the league’s salary cap with various off-balance-sheet player deals. They’re heading for the second division, despite being European champions and possibly the best team in the world.

It’s the biggest scandal ever to hit English rugby. I feel very sorry for the players and staff, who face an uncertain future and a tough rest of the season. I especially feel for the England players who came straight back from a chastening World Cup final defeat to this.

Saracens were chronic underperformers in the Noughties, never winning a title, but that began to change in 2008, when a billionaire South African invested in the club, and brought in Brendan Ventner as coach.

Ventner was charismatic, a committed Christian, and slightly crazy. He inspired the team with his vison: put values before trophies. Make memories. Focus on key virtues — humility, work-rate, discipline and trust. The players were told, ‘work unbelievably hard, and you’ll be unbelievably well taken care of.’

Like a Silicon Valley start-up, the club evolved its own unique culture (some called it a cult). It offered a creche for players’ kids. It offered mindfulness and yoga. It brought in inspirational speakers, and a wolf (the team is nick-named the ‘wolf-pack’). The entire team went on bonding trips to Oktoberfest and the Swiss Alps.

It even had a philosophy club. That was run by me, in fact. I was invited in by the head of personal development, David Jones, to give a talk in 2013 about my book Philosophy for Life. I spoke to the entire team and staff about how ancient Greek philosophy can help you flourish. It was a surreal experience, but it went down surprisingly well.

David then invited me back to run a regular philosophy club. In 2013, I taught a philosophy course there, the same month as I taught it to inmates in Glasgow prison. Both groups seemed to like it — in fact, Saracens defence coach Paul Gustard (now head coach at Harlequins) said it was the best thing they did all season. I’m still in touch with some of the ex-inmates too — one of them did a philosophy PhD. (I wrote more about this course, and evaluated its impact, here).

The format of the philosophy club was simple. I’d give a talk for 20 minutes or so about an idea from virtue ethics (particularly Stoicism) and / or psychology (particularly CBT). Then the group would have a discussion sparked off from that. One talk was about focusing on what you can control, another on whether anger is a vice. I even did a talk on Jung’s concept on the shadow, which the players really liked (you can watch it here).

In both the prison and the rugby club, philosophy gave men a chance to talk about their values and emotions without feeling they were in a therapy session.

Philosophy club wasn’t compulsory, and we only usually got 10 or so of the players and coaches. So this was in no way a decisive factor in their success. Still, a lot of the England regulars would attend, like Jamie George, Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje. I didn’t get paid much at all, but it was fun.

All the emphasis on team culture seemed to pay off. Saracens won the Premiership in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019, and the European Cup in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Saracens started selling the secret of their culture to corporate clients, through something called ‘the Saracens Way’.

A lot of businessmen love professional sports, and will happily pay thousands to get ex-sports-stars to come and talk to them, on the pretext they can pass on some of their elite mindset. In actuality, I think businessmen just want to meet their sporting heroes and imagine their corporate jobs are somehow similar. But if the players also share some basic wisdom and inspiration, well, it can’t hurt. I wasn’t involved in that initiative.

Now that Saracens have fallen so spectacularly from grace, several articles are, unsurprisingly, taking aim at the legend of the ‘Saracens culture’.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Liew writes:

The Saracens Way was sold to us as an ideology, almost a lifestyle: a triumph of culture and values, of innovation and fresh thinking… it held an instant, sticky appeal: Imagineer Your Way To Success With This One Weird Trick!

And yet, he writes, ‘the real One Weird Trick, not quite as widely discussed, perhaps, and a little less sexy than wolves and Descartes’, was the club’s whopping great salary bill.

He adds, with grim economic determinism:

we would rather talk about winning mentalities and virtuous cultures, about creches and team-building jaunts. To do otherwise, after all, would be to tear down the illusion that still props up the narrative of sport in this country: that through talent, hard work and innovation alone, you too can stand atop the podium. It is a maxim that has never been true in society and is rarely — if ever — true in sport. Anyone telling you different is probably trying to sell you something.

The Financial Times also had a pop:

Saracens’ success was arguably built less on its stated values than on acquiring the best players. And to acquire the best players, Saracens’ multimillionaire owner Nigel Wray broke the rules. In sport, as in business, financial strength is often more decisive than star managers would like to think. In football, academic research has shown that the size of a club’s wage bill is the best indicator of a team’s final league position.

Is this true? Not totally. The correlation between success and salaries is strong in some leagues (the football Premiership) and weak in others (the NFL and football Championship). There have been no studies (as far as I’m aware) of the extent to which players’ well-being or sense of team morale correlate with success. There have been several studies which show the happier and more engaged employees are, the more financially successful a company is. But of course, you can have a very engaged work-force making lots of money, and still be ethically dodgy.

Was the legend of Saracens’ culture total BS? Not from my perspective.

I’m sure the main ingredient in their success was their stellar team. But don’t forget that most of their stars came through their academy system — like Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Jackson Wray. Others came there at the start of their careers, like Mako Vunipola, who arrived when he was 21. Saracens did not just buy in talent, they nurtured it, developing several world-class players who are the backbone of the England team.

Unfortunately, they then spent a fortune to keep that talent, in order to stop star players leaving for France, where the salary cap is much higher.

There were always trade-offs and tensions between the club’s various values, and this tension finally broke.

On the one hand, you had the mantra of treating players ‘unbelievably well’, and the chairman’s dream of making English club rugby as big and profitable as the football Premiership or the NFL. Rugby has had growing pains ever since it went professional in 1995. It’s teetered on becoming a global mega-sport, like football, Formula 1 and tennis, but hasn’t yet made it, certainly not at club level, where average attendance is just 14,000. Saracens were trying to change that, and came up against the salary cap.

On the other hand, they paraded their values of ‘honesty’, ‘fairness’ and ‘humility’ (literally — girls in bikinis came on before the game wearing sashes with the values emblazoned on them). In pursuit of their dreams, and cocky with all the success, they failed on those core values. They repeatedly got reprimanded for dodging the salary cap and they repeatedly didn’t deal with it. The salary cap was killing the game, they said. It was holding English rugby back from competing with French clubs in European competitions. Well, maybe. But illegally dodging it was not the right way to change that.

If you make a big deal of your ethics, if you set yourself up as an ethical leader, if you sell your ethical vision to others, you will be held to account, and severely criticized if you fail to live up to your own values. Rightly so.

The challenge for Saracens is where do they go from here. They dreamt of building a dynasty and taking English rugby to the next level. Now they need to rebuild, not just their integrity, but their relationship with other clubs, to try and grow this wonderful sport so it gets the attention it deserves.

As to the wider question: what about culture? Should organisations take employees’ well-being and engagement seriously? Of course they should, not just because it makes you successful, but because it’s the right thing to do.

You can be successful without caring about well-being at all (look at the success of Andre Agassi, who hated tennis, or the England cricket team from 2009–2013, who became number one in the world then fell apart). But it’s not much fun, and leads to burn-out and break-downs.

Every time a professional sportsperson opens up about their mental health problems, we wring our hands. Saracens took that issue very seriously and actively supported players’ well-being. It was a fun, supportive place to work, and it fostered excellence.

Is it helpful for players / employees to feel they can talk freely to their managers and each other about what’s on their mind? Yes, obviously, and things like ‘philosophy club’ are a way of facilitating that.

Does philosophy have a place in sport, or other industries? Certainly a lot of sports teams and entrepreneurs have found the virtue ethics of Stoicism and Buddhism helpful in the last few years, though there’s a clear risk of clashing incentives when virtue ethics and capitalism mix.

Is there a constant risk that companies will not live up to their values? Yes. Every day there’s a risk organisations and individuals fail to be true to the values they profess. Saracens didn’t wipe out because they focused on values and culture. They wiped out because in one crucial area, they didn’t walk the walk.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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