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Sports Employment: Being The Friendly Grim Reaper

Have you ever considered what it would be like to tell a professional football player that he was losing his job?  Well, I just happen to know the answer, so pad up, sit down, and buckle in!

The Employment Process

All industries and companies have employees, and as a result, each entity must deal with personnel administration.  The evaluation, turnover, and hiring/firing cycles are continuous.  The job of completing these tasks is handled by the Human Resources staff for most companies, and those positions can be relatively mundane and thankless. However, when applied to an NFL football team, the job becomes A LOT more interesting.

Contrary to ‘Corporate America,’ in professional sports most roster moves are not made because of a major employee screw-up: They are made because team executives recognize an injury situation, have a new investment in a Draft choice or free agent, or are simply applying the process of consistently upgrading the talent on the roster.

My experience in the business of professional sports has given me the opportunity to assist in an NFL team Pro Personnel department, and my involvement quickly included the hiring and firing of professional athletes.  Needless to say, there is a whole lot more that goes on behind the scenes than just a simple transaction scrolling across the bottom of your television screen.

Let us examine:

  1. A group of team executives meets weekly and evaluates the entire roster.  This discussion includes reviewing each player relative to season performance, specific game performance, age, salary, coach evaluation, fitting a scheme, injury status, etc…
  2. After weighing all appropriate factors, a decision is rendered to make any number of necessary roster moves, and a timeline is determined for each.  (NFL executives do not receive enough credit for the countless hours they put into making these critical decisions year round!)
  3. The necessary roster moves ensue, whether it is a release, signing, placing a player in an injured status, or a practice squad transaction.  There are countless transaction types, but I will focus on the release procedure.  (Again, not enough credit goes to NFL team executives and the NFL Player Personnel department at the League Office!)

Sharing the Load

Let me start by saying that it is not fun to inform anyone in any employment capacity that they no longer have a job.  My experience has been no different.

First of all, many unknown people work very hard behind the scenes to make each and every roster move happen seamlessly after a decision has been made.  I would like to bring those people to light here.  Remember that each roster move happens within the course of a 24-hour span!  These people work hard.  The Equipment Manager, Player Personnel Executive Assistant, Security Director, Travel Coordinator, Football Operations Manager, Pro Personnel Director, Contract Manager, Head or Assistant Trainer, Salary Cap Director, Payroll Manager, Digital Media Manager and Pro Personnel Manager all have immediate responsibilities.  Numerous other individuals have responsibilities that happen soon after.  All of these people have to act ‘in concert’ never missing a step.  Can you imagine a player not having a flight, not having a jersey, or missing a practice, simply because one of these people was having a bad day and had a small oversight!?  Yes, there is a lot of pressure, and I personally have an appreciation for each and every one of these individuals!

Search and Linger

Okay, so I know the suspense is eating you up…  How do you a tell a player?  When do you tell a player?  What is the typical response?  How much material damage is done?

Once a decision had been made, my boss would simply stop by my desk or call me into his office and inform me that I needed to go find ‘Player X’, because the organization was releasing him.  No other explanation was necessary.  This instantly put me in action to inform my counterparts as necessary, but more importantly, to go find the player.  There was no shortage of places this guy could be hiding in the building.  Sometimes certain players would actually hide, knowing the time of year or roster situation.  I suppose the train-of-thought was “If they cannot find me, maybe they will release somebody else.”  Trust me, that NEVER happened.  All it meant was Player Personnel staff like myself spent more time trying to find the guy.

It is important to note that these player releases happen year-round, not just after the Draft or at the end of training camp.  Player turnover consistently happens, week-in and week-out.

After receiving the news, I would glance at the player daily schedule and consider where the most likely location of the player might be, but he could be anywhere: Training room table, hot tub, weight room, a coach’s office, positional meeting room, team meeting room, a medical exam room, cafeteria, his locker, player lounge, equipment room, accounting office, media interview room, mail room, practice field, indoor practice area, walking in a hallway, sauna, shower, or of course, even in the restroom.  Calling a player on his cell phone doesn’t work, because these guys know better than to carry their phones around and be disciplined for it going off during a meeting.  (Rookies learn that lesson REALLY QUICK.)  If need be, I would ask around secretly to see if anyone had seen the player, but some deductive reasoning usually had good results.

I would make rounds to the places I thought the guy might be, and if I made more than one round, other players would quickly know what I was up to.  I often had to stand in a hallway and wait for a meeting to end, and that was a pretty obvious sign of impending doom for someone.  Players are very aware of the release procedure and the person(s) responsible for accomplishing the task.  One is quickly labeled as “The Turk”, “The Grim Reaper” and/or “The Angel of Death.”  A trip through the locker room inevitably resulted in numerous concerned glances, piercing stares, hushed conversation, and/or a few snide remarks.  I always tell people that it doesn’t matter how nice of a person you are, because you are delivering bad news.  So that stigma follows you around.

Friend or Foe?

One obvious side effect of this job is that you are not easily befriended by players.  They know you are the one that could end their current employment.  There are some players that look beyond that, and recognize that you are simply doing your job by carrying out a decision.  To those players, whom I will leave unnamed, I sincerely THANK YOU.  The respect and friendship you give to the unfortunate souls that must deliver the bad news is not forgotten.

The Delivery

After locating a player, it was not as if I could simply pull him aside and tell him to go to the Pro Personnel Director’s office…  A good amount of class, respect and confidentiality had to go into the process.  After all, nobody likes to be embarrassed while being fired.  I would sometimes have to trail a player covertly for minutes before getting the opportunity to talk to him.  I needed to wait for a window when he was not surrounded by other players, so I often had to tell a player in a hallway or when he was at his locker alone.  And a decent portion of the time I needed to release the player in a time sensitive situation; for example, before he went out to the practice field!

After hundreds of occurrences in which I had to deliver the bad news, I started to realize that being direct, succinct, and considerate was the best method of delivery.  While I was not trying to become best friends with players, I did want them to know that I respected them.

My typical delivery statement was, “Hi Joe, I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, but the organization has decided to release you.  When you finish [the current activity], I need to escort you upstairs to the Personnel office so that we can explain the process to you.  I will wait [over there] for you.”  If I had a relationship with the player, I would put my hand on his shoulder and sincerely say “I’m sorry,” but the delivery was still the same.

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

The typical response was stunned silence.  Nope, no throwing of helmets, no punching walls, no yelling and screaming, no string of demeaning curse words, and no running out of the building.  They might be athletes, but they are still professionals.  I was essentially telling a grown man he was no longer good enough to be on the team; or that’s at least how he would initially interpret it.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way players handled the news.  My escorting them was necessary to make sure nothing irresponsible happened, but outside of a few rare instances, the escort was not necessary.

Some of the non-typical responses:

  • Crying
  • Immediately wanting to call his agent to find another team
  • Asking my opinion why
  • Asking about his purchased game tickets
  • One time, a player decided to leave with the personal possessions of another player we had just signed!

On the way up to the office, I would mention the next steps in the process: Cleaning out his locker, meeting with coaches, getting an exit physical, scheduling travel, paperwork, the NFL roster process, his paycheck, etc…  I would indicate that the team would do everything possible to help the process. However, there wasn’t much of a conversation at this point.  The personal damage had been done.  After mostly silence, the typical response: “Ok.”

Honestly, I don’t blame them…

I invite any questions or comments you may have, along with any suggestions for future article topics.  Check back next Friday for more exclusive content!

Click here to contact Joe directly.

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