When saying “I’m responsible” is an evasion of responsibility

We often complain that not many people take responsibility any more, but  sometimes saying that you take responsibility may actually allow you to evade responsibility.

One example came after Chelsea football club’s surprising 2-1 home defeat to Basel in the men’s Champions’ League tournament last night. After the match, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said:

When we lose I don’t speak about the players or individuals, I speak about my responsibility. I am responsible.

It’s costless for Mourinho to say this. He knows that whether or not he says things like this, he’ll get sacked if the results aren’t good enough, even if it’s his players’ fault. Think about petulant teenage-impressionist Gerard Houllier, blaming his players before he got sacked as France coach and after he got sacked as Liverpool coach. It made no difference and he would have been better off going out graciously.

Moreover, by saying what he said, Mourinho can avoid saying why Chelsea lost and thus who, if anyone, was responsible. Was it his team selection? The quality of players available? The formation? The referee? Did particular players mess up? Bad luck? His comment that “I am responsible” amounts to saying “I am sackable but I’m not going to say who was culpable”.

I am responsible, ergo I evade responsibility.

Mourinho is of course quite right to say what he did: from his comments on the video at this link, it sounds as if he did think that one or more players didn’t play well, but that he is trying to shield them in public. Fine – that is his job and, usually, the right thing to do.

My complaint, in fact, is as much about the BBC’s reporting of this story as Mourinho’s comments. The BBC’s actual headline is “Jose Mourinho takes blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. A more accurate headline would have been “Jose Mourinho avoids saying who was to blame for Chelsea defeat to Basel”.

Or how about this one: “Journalist falls for Jose Mourinho’s comment that he was responsible for Chelsea defeat to Basel”. Not as punchy, but more accurate.


UPDATE (21 September 2013): in response to my criticisms, clearly, Mourinho has clarified his position, noting that his players are taking time to adapt to his style, and criticising Juan Mata for not showing enough adaptability.

So, my basic points still stand: we can evade responsibility by pretending to take responsibility, and we shouldn’t always take statements about responsibility at face value. But I was too harsh about Mourinho: he has actually been laudably clear about the situation, in suggesting that Chelsea’s form is in part a natural response to a change of style, and that at least one player isn’t changing fast enough.