Chip Kelly’s Internal Power Struggle

In the National Football League there is a discrepancy of stability. For some franchises – such as the New England Patriots where the head coach and quarterback have been working together for fifteen years – there is a core of stability, despite a moving cast of other players coming and going. For other teams the opposite is the case. The Cleveland Browns, for example, have gone through eight different head coaches in that span (and as of writing this they in search of their ninth).

In this vein, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was fired on December 29, one game short of three seasons. After two 10-6 campaigns, Kelly latest season’s record was 6-9 (owner Jeffrey Lurie fired him before the last game of the season). This season was different (not only because of the losing record); before this latest campaign Kelly asked for, and was granted, executive powers to hire and fire, draft and trade, based on his own discretion. These are the  powers normally reserved for the General Manager of the team – not the head coach. Whether he needed more time to see his experiment come to fruition (or not), after making a series of controversial offseason moves, it did not pan out, and owner Jeffrey Lurie (who provided Kelly with the extended role to begin with) put an end to it by firing him seemingly abruptly and without notice.

Upon Kelly’s being fired there were naturally a stream of commentators offering their diagnosis of what they thought to be the dynamics of what led to the abrupt end. Among the most interesting comments were those by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews’ as reported by Albert Breer’s week 17 version of his Inside the NFL Notebook. Discussing the theory that Kelly was simply granted too much power too quickly – and the possibility that this could have negatively impacted his relationship with players in the locker room – Matthews offered this:

“It might not have been Chip Kelly as much as it was that person [going to him]. When you know somebody has that much power over a part of the organization, you are gonna be a little wary about it…It’s no different than having a boss. Are you gonna be in your boss’ face all day when you know he can decide if you’ll stay in your job or fire you? Probably not, because he has that power.”

Matthews’ comments are interesting because he goes beyond the basic premise that power corrupts the person who holds the power, and instead, looks toward the larger framework in place which sustains and maintains this power in the first place. In this analysis, it’s not that Kelly is a corrupt power hungry dictator, who has no time for other people in the organization. Instead, it’s the expectations people have when they go to talk to him. According to Matthews’ suggestion, it could be that some people imagine him to be the power hungry monster, and it is this expectation that dictates how people approach him. In this self-fulfilling prophecy-like mechanism, players believe Kelly to be a certain way, this belief influences their actions (the way they interact with him), which in turn influences the way Kelly reacts to, and acts, based on the way he is acted toward by the person going to him.

This is not meant to diminish the potential that Kelly was not in fact good at interacting with, and relating to, players. Matthews’ larger point is based on an analysis of what (following French philosopher Michel Foucault) could be called the nodal points of power: power operates in a generative way by creation positions within a field of power. The positions that power creates (for example: GM, head coach, owner of franchise, CEO, police officer, district attorney, etc.), and the ways in which this power reverberates with other nodal points, determine the modes of interaction possible (and imaginable) available to people occupying relative positions within the field. In this view, power is productive and generative as much as it is oppressive and directly impactful, since it operates as a field that produces relative positions within it, and these positions are relative to other positions on the same field. So when Kelly was granted the additional power to hire and fire, there was also enacted a re-arrangement of the institutional power structure.

Within this structure it would have been exceedingly difficult for Kelly to deconstruct his own position within the relative field of power in an attempt to disperse the power in an attempt to avoid it from coagulating in and as his position. However, one example of this attempt, may be seen in his constant public denial of being the GM (e.g., “Chip Kelly denies the Eagles are bad and also denies he’s the general manager”, Brandon Lee Gowton: December 28/15 Power nonetheless crystallized in and as his position, and even though he may have been attempting to fight against its crystallization, he was ultimately let go. If absolute power corrupts, and it corrupts absolutely, it does not discriminate; it deteriorates those who are perceived as holding power, because, not only do they only seemingly hold power, but, more realistically, power holds them.

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