Ideal Worker Norms and Landon Donovan’s World Cup Cut
Perhaps you have heard of Landon Donovan. He is a professional soccer play for the L.A. Galaxy and the all-time leader in both scoring and assists for the U.S. national soccer team and one of the few in the U.S. professional soccer league who has who has registered both 60 goals and 60 assists. He’s played professionally in both the U.S. and abroad since the age of 17 (he is now 32) and has made successful World Cup appearances for the U.S. national team, scoring five goals in World Cup play.
Perhaps you have also heard that he was recently cut from the final 23-man US men’s national team’s World Cup roster. Some speculate he was cut because his skill level has recently declined (yet days after he was cut from the national team, he broke the MLS record for most goals scored in the regular season) or because of the U.S. men’s national coach could not stand having a star detract attention from him.
As a sociologist who studies work, I interpret his removal from the team as a reflection of the unyielding work mentality in the U.S.: if you don’t work full-time, all the time and display what we call “ideal worker norms”—constant devotion and availability to one’s employer, no interests outside of paid work, someone who does not get sick, and especially someone who does not prioritize family above work—people think you lack commitment and cannot to be trusted to do a good job.
You see, during World Cup qualifying time Donovan took a 4-month self-imposed sabbatical during which he spent time with family, played pick-up soccer, meditated, and basically took a mental health break. When he returned to soccer, he alleges he was better mentally and was excited and committed to the game.
In general, Donovan has accepted the cut but has not connected it directly to his sabbatical (at least not publicly). But it is possible that Donovan’s temporary leave from the sport sparked some consideration (by his coach and others) that he was less devoted or committed than he should be to play on an elite team and precipitated his cut. This is in line with what scholars have coined the “flexibility stigma” or the idea that if you request or take a break from full-time work (to care for family or otherwise), you’ll be penalized at work because working anything but full time implies you cannot cut it or that you do not have your priorities straight.
That he has not publicly linked his sabbatical to his cut is not surprising. Ideal worker norms are so embedded in our work culture, they are also a metric by which workers use to gauge their own success and worth. This mentality makes it really hard to step away or step back temporarily from work and come back, even if the stepping back is needed to help you stay in the game, so to speak.
My collaborators and I compared the experiences of workers who were employed but who either worked continuously full time for the past 5 years or those who did not (i.e., worked some part time, took a break from work). Specifically, we investigated their perceptions of being treated unfairly at work (being micro-managed, feeling ignored, feeling dumped on).
Women in our sample perceived unfair treatment as a result of not working full time. The men did not. We speculated that in a society that equates masculinity with “bread winning,” men are particularly likely to think that a single-minded commitment to work is a symbol of high personal worth. So when they broke ideal worker norms (by not working full-time), these men may have felt they failed—both as a man and as a “good” worker. So even if they were unfairly treated, the men who broke ideal worker norms may not call things like being micromanaged, being ignored, or feeling dumped a fair response to breaking ideal worker norms.
I imagine there are countless professional athletes who have been “in training” since their elementary school years and a brief sabbatical would slow or minimize physical and mental burnout. I also know there are workers outside of the world of professional sports who have been working for pay since they could who would welcome a temporary leave—to play mental “catch up” or spend time with family.
Highly competitive companies are making flexible work an option for professionals and finding that it attracts—and retains—talent. What if the world of U.S. professional soccer could be a leader in facilitating workplace professional leave policies?