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What we talk about when we talk about work and football

University of Minnesota

1. This is the thing where we talk about work during sports. For some reason we, as a nation, like to do this during sports, the thing we watch when we're not working presumably to forget about working.

In baseball, you talk about the right way to play. The "right way to play" is some joyless assembly of rules amounting to a grim acceptance of your own excellence and refusal to admit anything happening is enjoyable. It also tends to bend toward judgment against non-white players, but that is an entirely separate complaint.

2.  This is college football's variation on that.

That's an opinion, and he can have it. The last thing I want to do is point and go, "This is stupid, and you should feel bad for being stupid," because that's just a really Internet thing to do. Having bad opinions is an American right, and George Washington stabbed Hessians in their sleep to guarantee it for you.

What I'd rather ask is this: have you watched Baylor WR Corey Coleman play? Do you realize that he is by definition unpaid? And that part of college football is lying about this being a professional league, but also about that casualness? Do you know Coleman goes back to a dorm, and that despite this, he plays every single down like a Tekken character flashing through violent combos? Did you go to Adult College, a place where you learned joyless, overly particular adult habits*?

* I went to the University of Florida, where I learned about getting my car towed, the play-action post and pretending I'd read Derrida. Worth every penny that I did not pay for it.

Have you talked with Baylor's coaches, who said Coleman probably should have worn a shirt, but don't really seem to care? Why did you even think, "This is unprofessional," instead of, "This is funny; that young man is addressing the media shirtless, perhaps because he just juked himself out of it on the way up to the podium?" Because Corey Coleman could do that.

Why on earth are you choking on a detail like this? What has work done to you that you notice the wrinkle in the shirt and not the resume? Why do this after we've already handled players like cattle, interviewed them semi-naked or worse, and dictated absurd degrees of control over their behavior? What has work done to you that your idea of professionalism creeps into your enjoyment of something as amateur and frivolous as a press conference?

Seriously, what the hell has work done to you?

3. This is another time where we talk about football like it's a job: when someone gets fired.

Iowa State fired offensive coordinator Mark Mangino on Monday. It is a little odd to fire a coordinator in late October, but not totally unheard of.

In 2008, for instance, Auburn fired current Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin in late October. Franklin walked out of his office in the middle of the day, with his hands full of books and white cardboard office boxes stuffed with his playbooks. It was sad, but also relatable to anyone who's ever watched a co-worker toting a professional life away from a workplace on a moment's notice. You can see the calendar and the random work award peeking out of the box.

None of Iowa State's players saw it coming, per Iowa State's players.


Players rarely see it coming. Staffs usually do a good job screening players from internal strife, and even when they don't, the chances of 20-year-old athletes noticing the subtleties of work remain low. If you doubt this, think about the things you noticed when you were 20. In any given scene, they probably looked like this:

  • a butt
  • hot right now
  • maybe cold
  • that song's good
  • sandwich?
  • when do I tax file
  • there's another butt
  • can they cut off your power when it's cold out is that even legal
  • oh god where's my ATM card

That may not be that different from your thoughts at any age, actually. Leave that to yourself for now.

At the age when most players play college football, people are not aware of how fast things can change, or of how impermanent all the arrangements governing a daily routine might be.

Time dilation is real. For a football player recruited at 16 by a coach, their relationship at age 20 is 20 percent of the player's life. For someone in their 30s, four years might constitute the bare minimum of time required to consider remembering someone's last name or asking them to check on a pet when you go out of town.*

* Maybe. Even then, this might be too personal.

4. This is when someone learns a painful lesson applicable across every desperate acre of work life: your job, for better or worse, is not your friend, and even if you're friendly with it, it might drag one of your friends into the bushes for a late afternoon snack.

It's probably something you're blasé about now, because you've been living in a workplace for a while and realize just how much it can suck in ways you've come to accept. No one is safe. Every relationship is a tenuous one underwritten by a bottom line. Being sympathetic can make things worse for everyone involved. You become jaded not out of decay, but by design. The people around you might leave or be thrown clear of the corporate hide at any time. You might be thrown with them, but even if you are, you will land separately.

It's heartbreaking, but maybe a little more so when you watch players learn that work will spend the rest of their lives introducing people, then randomly pulling them away for both good and totally inane reasons.

Even when someone like Al Golden loses 58-0 to Clemson and practically begs to be fired, his Miami players might get it from a rational perspective, but they can't accept it emotionally.

That's a good thing in one sense. Players care, and maybe more than they ever will again.

People get fired, people have to move, lives change at the whims of a brand, a logo, or the ownership. We forget that. For coaches, this often remains just a business. A lot of players say that, too, but nothing in the aftermath of a firing looks like it. You have to watch them learn this live, because that is another way we talk about college football. It's just a business, even when it isn't to the people playing it.


Jerry Kill resigned as Minnesota's head coach this week. Kill, by all accounts, is a person who was completely consumed by his job, slogging his way up the ladder through the Saginaw States, Southern Illinoises, and NIUs of the world. Then he got cancer, and the treatment for the cancer gave him recurring seizures. Those seizures became so severe his doctors told him his long-term health was at risk unless he gave up work, the thing he loved so much he ignored those same doctors.

It was so, so hard watching him do that, and for so many reasons. It's odd to see anyone dare that kind of naked honesty and emotion in a public forum, much less from the mouth of a football coach known best for being bitterly, uncompromisingly tough. It was hard, after years of coming to terms with the cold business side of football-as-work, and college football as a business, to see someone at the end object to the entire idea with tears and gratitude and, yes, a bit of real fear about what was next.

The real terror might be that life without work or football or however you want to conflate the two is something lesser for people who've poured themselves into their professions. Kill is like a lot of people who fell in love with work. It's hard not to, if you fall into or the step in the right vocational bucket and find yourself stuck hopelessly to something you both happen to love and need. And inevitably, you will need it more than it needs you. There will be no line between you and work, or at least not one that isn't bulldozed every time work calls.

There is genuine terror there. Kill said that a part of him "died" when he left the practice field for the last time. He'll probably be fine. He's pretty well off, and that helps things. He has a loving family, which he cited as the only real reason he'd ever leave football.

But fear creeps in when you think about that part of how we talk about work when we talk about football, maybe the realest part of the counterfeit comparison of the two. How much of you is left when it's over?


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