Should Big-Time Professional Athletes Coach Their Own Teams?

What if Derek Jeter played for the Yankees and managed the franchise? Our fan panel discusses.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Emma Carmichael (writer, Deadspin), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about what would happen if a big-name player managed his own team.


Hey, guys,

A curious thing happened on the way to the Chicago White Sox naming former star and Nolan Ryan punching bag Robin Ventura as their new manager. According to multiple media outlets, general manager Ken Williams briefly considered naming veteran slugger Paul Konerko player-manager, a former mainstay of baseball that has not been seen in more than 25 years.

Though Williams only toyed with the idea—he didn't even mention it to Konerko—the story made me wonder whether a player-manager could succeed in any of the major American sports. Until the mid-70s, star players routinely took the helm of their own teams, including Bill Russell, Ty Cobb, and Frank Robinson. But the last MLB player-manager was Pete Rose in 1984 (we all know how well that turned out) and the NBA no longer allows player-coaches.

My question is: In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, constant scrutiny from fans and pundits and super-inflated athlete's egos, could a player effectively mange his own team? Could a veteran like Derek Jeter or a star like Albert Pujols—both of whom command respect from their teammates—oversee the demands of a manager while retaining the focus to play at a high level? I think no—the media firestorm that would surround Player-Coach X's every move might be manageable at first, but over the course of a 162-game season he would inevitably wear down.

Emma, am I being too cynical? And if so, who'd you like to see player-manage your beloved Red Sox?

–Jake

Baseball's first player-manager in over 25 years would have to be a very distinct breed, I think. He'd either have to be a straight-edge media darling like Pujols or Jeter, the two players Jake mentioned, or he'd have to be an Ozzie Guillen—someone who is batshit crazy and who could take everything bad the media might have to say to him, then chew it up and then toss it back without batting an eye. And it wouldn't hurt if he could also then go and tweet about it in two languages.

The Guillens of the world would certainly have more fun with the gig, but I don't know that they'd be any good at it. The real problem is that they'd have to make the time and energy for it--and in baseball, amphetamines only go so far. I think it would be an exhausting mess for any current player. Professional sports are, in every sense of the word, much bigger than they were in the '80s, when Pete Rose was managing, playing for, and betting on the Cincinnati Reds. The media blitz, especially, is entirely different—all thanks to The Internet and The Twitter.

So a team, as well as any player who agreed to it, would have to be kind of crazy to opt for this route—and honestly, most Major League Baseball teams don't need these kinds of stunts to get by. And if they do, they can just out their players for eating fried chicken in the club house.

So while I think it would be a fascinating experiment to see David Ortiz try and manage the chaos that is currently the Boston Red Sox, I really wouldn't wish it on anyone. Except for maybe A-Rod. What do you think, Hampton?

–Emma

Player-coaches in baseball? Yes, please. And why stop there? Let's bring 'em back in the NBA, too. And the real opportunity for fun is the NFL. Rex Ryan, for instance. What opposing player or fan wouldn't love seeing the Jets' head man have to backup his tough talk on the field? But seriously, folks.

The problem with the player-coach, as you note Emma, is that both are full-time occupations. In fact, if you do them right, they're probably all-consuming. For instance, a coach might need to be breaking down video of an opposing team's pitching staff, while a hitter would need to spend that same time in the batting cages. Doing both of those at once would be way hard. Just like a defendant who acts as their own attorney, any baseball team that hires a player to manage at the same time probably has a fool for both.

Which begs a question: given that the skill-sets demanded by playing and coaching are so totally different, why do teams in any sport insist on hiring star ex-players to manage and coach? The conventional wisdom, as espoused by owners, general managers, scouts and fans alike, is that current players will only "respect" a leader who also played at a high level.

That's so dumb. Do you really think guys on the Cardinals' current roster give a flying fig about Tony LaRussa's glory days with the Kansas City A's? Does anyone in the Tigers clubhouse respect Jim Leyland for those seven minor league years with the Tigers in the 1960's? Please.

The notion that playing at a high level is a prerequisite for being a good coach is being proven wrong in the NFL. Todd Haley, head coach of the Chiefs, never even played college ball. Bill Belichick, a subpar backup tight-end at tiny Wesleyan University, may end up the greatest coach in league history. But still in football, as in the NBA and NHL, most cling to the silly notion that a good coach needs to have been a good player. Nowhere is that more true than in baseball, a game in which Jim Leyland, a 66-year old smoker, still suits up as if to play every night.

Patrick, you tell me. Should players coach? Or vice-versa? Or has the whole idea gone the way of rotary dial and the well-written three-camera sitcom?

–Hampton

Did you just insinuate that 16-21 career record-having, there's-a-rat-in-my-salad-McDonald's-suing Todd Haley is proving to be a—ahem—good NFL coach? That he even belongs in the same sentence next to a sentence that includes the words "Bill Belichick?"

If so, I think you just made nitrous oxide obsolete.

As for the topic at hand: maybe a player-coach couldn't cope with the emotional demands of the modern media hothouse. Maybe contemporary coaching already is more than a full-time gig, just too hard and time-consuming for anyone who has to play as well. Maybe coaching is less about being a good performer, and more about being an excellent teacher—otherwise, Magic Johnson, and Wayne Gretzky would be Phil Jackson and Scotty Bowman.

So what? I don't care. I'm not a team owner. I'm a spectator. It's not my money on the line. Just my viewing time. And for sheer entertainment value—and possibly the good of a society gone wrong, too—I really, really want to see a player-coach.

One of the best things about tennis is that the sport not only tests players' skills, but also their smarts; the ability to hit a whiplash forehand isn't any more important than knowing when to do so, and to what area of the court, and why. The reason? In-match coaching is verboten. Oh, sure: players fudge and get all kinds of furtive, discrete advice from their boxes in the stands. Still, they don't get sideline printouts. Or timeout whiteboard sessions. Or have radio-equipped helmets, like NFL quarterbacks, the better for the little man behind the curtain to tell them what to do before each and every point.

Nope, tennis players are all alone out there. And I dig that. I dig when Jackson leaves a befuddled, pants-wetting Kwame Brown on the floor to figure things out for himself. You learn a lot about a player that way.

Better still, the players learn a lot, too.

Indeed, the best thing about player-coaches is that they would potentially serve as a much-needed corrective to the ever-expanding, ever-more-breathless Great Man Theory of sports management, also known as the Cult of the Coach. Think the over-controlling college basketball sideline stompers who make every game about them—their pointing, their yelling, their shoe company pin-wearing—and not the guys who can, well, dunk. Think the college football coaches—hi, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban!—who not only want to lord over their players, but also the reporters covering them. Think a contemporary American society that mindlessly venerates coaches and pays them big bucks to write and spew motivational claptrap about winning the games of business and life ; a society that subjects its children to more and more coaching at younger and younger ages, casting aside free-form play, adopting the same top-down direction and structure via helicopter parenting and academic hand-holding, and then wonders why young adults turn out anxious, depressed and ill-equipped to cope with the essential unfairness of the world.

Let 'em play, I say. Let 'em coach. Let 'em figure it out for themselves.

–Patrick

Presented by

Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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