The Meaning Of Being Team Captain In Modern Sports


Earlier this week, an embittered Ian Kinsler took aim at his former boss with the Texas Rangers, general manager Jon Daniels. Among all of the vitriol he spewed toward Daniels, Kinsler did express his dismay on filling the leadership void created when Michael Young was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies prior to last season. Because Texas lost several players who were instrumental to two American League pennants, it was hoped that the intense second baseman would assume the role Young served throughout his career. With the presence of his eventual replacement, Jurickson Profar, making his last season awkward, Kinsler balked at the chance to display some team-first leadership by moving to first base.

Just yesterday in another frenetic trade deadline for the NHL, what appears to be the first-ever captain-for-captain trade went through as a miffed Martin St. Louis got his wish to be traded away from the Tampa Bay Lightning to the New York Rangers for Ryan Callahan. The rift between St. Louis and general manager Steve Yzerman created an untenable situation while the Rangers’ desperation for offensive punch — stop if you heard this before — meant that the near extension for the Blueshirts’ emotional leader was moot.

It compelled a friend to start an interesting Facebook conversation about the meaning of the word “captain” in sports. Having been a Yankees fan for her entire life, there was never a second thought on who was the leader on and off the field, the soon-to-retire Derek Jeter. Of course, being the captain of the New York Yankees is a pretty big deal to not only their fans, but the baseball gods as there have only been 11 such officially recognized leaders for the sport’s greatest franchise. She found herself wondering how such an important designation for one franchise is easily disposable for another.

Yet, the truth is that the meaning behind team captains varies between sports, leagues and, most certainly, teams.

Few baseball teams have formal captains. Jeter will likely be the last Yankee captain for quite some time despite the presence of players who played the role informally for other teams such as former Braves catcher Brian McCann. In a hackneyed, yet locally resonated, way, the Boston Red Sox designated Jason Varitek as their captain in the last heyday of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. On the outside looking in, it may have seemed like grandstanding at its finest, but no base is left uncovered when it comes to those two storied franchises.

Football teams celebrate the idea as well, but it wasn’t until 2007 when the NFL made a grand display of it with a program that features more than the "C" on the uniform. As one can see by this list, all but three teams have players adorning the symbol with only the New York Jets not even selecting captains. Whether it feels like another overly marketed initiative from the NFL or something that genuinely inspires leadership from its players, there's no question that the symbolic gesture means the world to players trusted by their coaches and teammates to lead them into another gridiron battle.

Though it’s been a long time since Paul Pierce was given the label for the Boston Celtics, NBA teams as a whole don’t make a show of it. However, teams stick with the “best player as captain” template as the nature of the game and smaller roster sizes make those athletes the most visible and influential figures both on and off the court. There’s no question that the brightest stars on the league’s best teams assume the role, but even the top players on mediocre and terrible teams are captains because they’re looked upon to do just about everything to keep them passably relevant.

That is why what took place yesterday between the Lightning and New York Rangers was so startling. In terms of on-ice needs and future development, both teams appear to have gotten what they’ve desperately needed. Tampa Bay gains not only defensive help and a potentially friendly salary if Callahan chooses to stay, but the draft picks could bode well for a team still trying to find itself a decade after its lone Stanley Cup. New York, in its unending quest to trade stability for short-term fixes using elder brand names, does get a still potent scorer in the 38-year-old St. Louis.

This designated captain is supposed to reflect the ideal virtues of a team. He is chosen not only because young players seek his guidance in becoming better professionals, but because well-established players look to him for the extra energy to carry old bodies over the haul of a long season. This recognized leader is the go-to guy for diffusing internal strife between teammates, has the ear of his coaches in a way that other players could not, and even acts as a bridge between the team and league when disciplinary issues may arise.

Yet in an instance where said leadership was easily tradable, one can’t help but wonder how the captaincies will be earned going forward. For all NHL teams, the "C" on a player’s sweater holds a symbolic and strategic meaning. The designation of the "C" isn’t taken lightly, but in the coming weeks and months after this trade we will learn how important the vacancies for both teams truly are.

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