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Kai Ryssdal: The NFL season starts tonight. The Tenessee Titans at Pittsburgh. As is par for the course in professional sports, there have been a bunch of coaching changes from last football season to this. There are 11 new head coaches in the league this year.
Commentator and sportswriter Jon Wertheim often has to report on those hirings and firings. But the state of the economy has him thinking he ought to be a little less cavalier about the livelihoods of others.
Jon Wertheim: During a recent late night drive, I caught a sports handicapper speaking with great certitude about the upcoming NFL season. Take it to the bank: the Steelers will repeat as Super Bowl champs, the Lions will win at least one game, and Dick Jauron of the Buffalo Bills will be the first coach fired. Yes, there is an exchange where bettors can wager when a coach will lose his job.
I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me. You’d be hard-pressed to find an occupation with more rapid turnover than “professional sports coach.” During last year’s NBA season, Oklahoma City’s bench boss, PJ Carlissimo, lasted of all of 13 games before being given a pink slip. Three Major League managers have already been fired in baseball this season.
As a member of the sports media, I have lost count of the number of times I have — casually and cavalierly — called for a coach to be fired, axed, or, more euphemistically, “relieved of his duties.” Fans do likewise, going so far as to start Web sites devoted to the firing on unpopular coach. It’s like watching rodeo: you know the coaches will get ejected eventually. It’s just a question of how long the ride lasts.
Yet lately, at a time when national unemployment hovers around 10 percent, I’m having a hard time lobbying for anyone to get canned. Who among us hasn’t seen the devastating effects of losing a job? Sure, pro coaches, whose annual salaries range from $1 to $5 million, can handle the financial impact of job loss better than most. But there are other costs. There’s the blow to the identity and sense of self. There’s the effect on family dynamics. Even when another position comes open, it often entails relocation, selling a home at a loss, uprooting kids.
There will always be turnover in competitive industries. And professional sports, where the success and failure is measured, unambiguously, in wins and losses, they’re as competitive as they come. Which means that coaches will remain vulnerable to job loss. “You can’t fire the players,” the saying goes.
Dick Jauron may well not last the season in Buffalo. But shouldn’t he have to do something worse than lose a few football games, before we request that he join the growing legions of the unemployed?
RYSSDAL: Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His most recent book is called “Strokes of Genius.”
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