Pete Carroll, Brian Williams and why smart people do dumb things

Pete Carroll. Photograph by Mike Morris.

Pete Carroll. Photograph by Mike Morris.

Well, last week was an extraordinary one for stupid career moves, wasn’t it?

It began with the Seattle Seahawks snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. All quarterback Russell Wilson had to do was hand the ball to running back Marshawn “I’m here so I don’t get fined” Lynch, kick him in the butt, pushing him into the end zone, and yell, “Oops, touchdown!” But no, no, that wasn’t good enough for Coach Pete Carroll and company. Hey, Niners’ fan here: I’m delighted the Hawks lost. The only thing that would’ve made me happier was if the New England Patriots had lost as well. Still, I’m a greater fan of intelligence, and if you’re one of those, it was a depressing moment.

Brian Williams. Photograph by David Shankbone.

Brian Williams. Photograph by David Shankbone.

More disappointment, however, was to come at the end of the week with the discovery for many of us that NBC anchor Brian Williams had aggrandized the danger he faced when reporting on the Iraq War. Yeah, ’cause there’s no video trail for that, right?

Stupidity is a particularly irksome quality as stupid people are stupid in every situation. That’s because they have no idea that they’re stupid. If they did, they might improve. But as they have no self-awareness, they cannot. And so they bedevil smart people, who can’t help but feel superior, impatient, even angry around them. The smart, though, are right to be wary, for the stupid can wreak a havoc as great as any mass murderer.

But what about smart people who do stupid things? Ah, that’s a different, even more painful subject, one that really concerns us here. Carroll is a savvy coach and the Hawks, a talented team. Williams is a suave, persuasive anchor. His account of a soldier who helped protect his helicopter as it came under fire in Iraq – and his subsequent reunion with the soldier at a New York Rangers’ game – was touching. What it wasn’t was particularly true. (He was not in the helicopter that was attacked but in another that was about a half-hour behind.) When I found out the truth, I felt like a fool. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Perhaps that’s why so many people are taking such glee in his crucible.

For myself, I take no pleasure in it but am left only to ask, Why? It’s part of a larger question: Why do accomplished people self-destruct?

Hubris – the fatal flaw of the ancient Greeks, who admonished mankind to “Know thyself” – is part of it. Carroll couldn’t resist complicating the last play in the Super Bowl in an attempt to outthink rival coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. It wasn’t enough for the Seahawks – or for that matter, the Patriots (see Deflate-gate) – to win. They had to dazzle, to outshine their opponents. All the Hawks succeeded in doing was slamming what was an open door in their faces.

Ever since Watergate, journalists have suffered from their own brand of bedazzlement. It’s a disease called Woodstein-itis, the desire to nab the big story in the manner of Watergate stars Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – none more so than TV journalists, on whom so many rely for news. It must’ve been very tempting for Williams – who basically has a desk job – to appropriate another’s experience that, but for the helicopter he was on, might’ve been his.

Now Carroll’s spending sleepless nights replaying that last play and no doubt wondering if the Seahawks will make it back to the Super Bowl – something that’s not a foregone conclusion.  

Meanwhile, Williams – whose Hurricane Katrina coverage is also being reviewed – has removed himself from the air for a few days. He’s taken himself out of a game in which he, like Carroll, overplayed his hand.