Originally published May 1, 2021.
Every kid in any organized sports league in any country on earth has, for at least a moment or two, fantasized about playing that sport professionally. I can remember being so enthralled by a daydream in which I played catcher for the Texas Rangers that I failed to see a pop fly coming to me in left field. And then as you age, the fantasy becomes thinner. You realize how few people actually make it to the pros (there are a total of about 880 baseball players on major league baseball rosters, out of a possible 3.5 billion men on earth). Then you start to have some honesty about how good you actually are. Then you start to think about the life that comes with being a professional athlete: the travel, workouts, media scrutiny, volunteer work, lack of job security, possibilities of injury, fickle fanbases… there are a lot of negatives.
And at some point, you may get old enough to actually think about how mediocre that life is for most people. I mean, for every Dirk Nowitzki, there are dozens of Raef LaFrentzes. For every Tom Brady, there are multitudes of Ryan Leafs. And for every Mike Trout, there are literally thousands of nameless outfielders drafted. Then that conclusion evolves into a different hypothetical: what is the best job in professional sports?
What We Can Rule Out
We can start by ruling out coaching. Coaches are historically on continuous probation. Two losing seasons? Adios. Scandal in their personal life? Sayonara. Clashing with management? Auf wiedersehen.
We can also rule out most NFL jobs. The injury rate in the NFL is very nearly 100%, plus with what we continue to learn about how devastating brain injuries can be and how easily they can be had, there’s a legitimate safety concern. Same goes for hockey, though the brain injuries aren’t nearly what they are in the NFL. And in hockey the position that is least likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury is the goalie, but that’s also one of those positions where a game can be completely determined by how well you play, so the pressure of that is probably out.
We can rule out golf because golf is an eat-what-you-kill sport where for 90+% of the players their entire income is based on how they finish in tournaments. Sure, the big names make a ton of money from sponsorships, but the guy who is ranked 350th in the world probably doesn’t. Same thing for tennis and really any other individual sport.
Hockey is out. Aside from the brain injuries mentioned earlier, hockey playing time is in short shifts, meaning that everyone on the bench gets a lot of playing time, but is also held that much more accountable for it. The slightest decrease in production could mean being reassigned to some minor league club until you can get the Happy Gilmore yips away from you.
Basketball isn’t a bad choice, but basketball requires a lot of self-maintenance, and the level of competition that comes with 12- or 15-man limits on roster size means there is always someone nipping at your heels to take your spot on the team.
So, I think we’ve sort of got an outline of what we’re looking for: a position that is not as competitively sought after, not likely to result in a serious injury, and guaranteed money. Then there’s the issue of pressure. I know that most people tell themselves they want to ball in their hands when the game is on the line, but the older I get, the less I would want that. Sports has become a career similar to many others, in my perspective at least, and jobs with a lot of pressure on performance tend to be jobs that are somewhat volatile. So my last qualification is a balance of pressure that keeps you on your toes versus pressure of a game being on the line.
Here are my candidates for best jobs in sports:
I don’t mean closer. I don’t want that bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, up by one run pressure. I mean the guy who comes in and pitches 0.2 innings, then goes to the dugout for some Dubble Bubble and Gatorade.
The pressure aspect is almost too high for this one. Sure, at that level the PATs should be routine, and no one would fault you for missing a 50-yarder, but in those moments when there’s one second on the clock and your team is down 2 on the opponent’s 33-yard line…I dunno. There’s a lot that can go wrong there.
Adam Morrison, a/k/a Benchwarmer with Rings
I love Adam Morrison. I love Gonzaga. But Adam Morrison was nothing short of a bust in the NBA. But, he won two rings with the Lakers and a lifetime average of 7.5 points per game. No pressure in the game, really, but a lot of pressure in practice just to keep your roster spot.
The downside here is the short leash. If a punter has a couple bad games in a row, it’s so long and thanks for all the fish to them.
Let’s go ahead and rule out place kicker. I’m sure those no-time-left-in-regulation situations result in nightmares and stress. I mean, you only really have one job, but if you do it wrong you get cut? Yikes. And I mean, imagine being Scott Norwood. He’s a kicker who last played when I was about a week shy of turning two years old, but I know him because of the field goal he missed in Super Bowl XXV. Imagine this being your legacy.
I think Adam Morrison is ruled out as well. With how competitive the NBA is, and knowing that a guy who averaged 28 a game in college couldn’t cut it in the league, you know the pressure is enormous. The pressure of just wondering if you’re going to be cut because you had a bad week of practice? No, thank you.
So it’s down to relief pitcher and punter. Punters have a few things going for them. For one thing, it’s not as glamorous a position as, say, quarterback or backup quarterback, or third string quarterback, or second string weak safety. That means there is likely less competition because the applicant pool is shallower. And the game is rarely, if ever, in your hands (or feet). I mean, how many times has a punter won or lost a game for a team? I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, so I will just assume that it’s a rare occurrence. Contract money isn’t as guaranteed in the NFL as it is in MLB, but at the same time the contractual incentives for punters (punts downed inside the 20, punts over 50 yards, etc.) can really add up.
But being a relief pitcher also sounds great. You come in in the sixth inning while 20% of the crowd is taking a leak or grabbing another chili cheese dog, and your main job is the hold the two-run lead you have. You’ll be expected to throw about 25 or 30 pitches is all, so you can throw them all as hard as you want. The downside is that while relief pitchers rarely win games for teams, they can certainly lose them. I mean, the feeling of coming in with a two-run lead then just getting absolutely shelled by the first few batters you see has to be a dreadful feeling. Watching your manager come out and look to the bullpen while tapping his left arm has to be terrible. You threw 17 pitches, got one out, and gave up a single, walked a guy on four pitches, then had some dude send your fastball 420 feet in the wrong direction? Oof.
So I think that means punter wins. Very little pressure, not as competitive as some other positions might be, good minimum contracts…it’s got a lot going for it. Plus, who knows? You may even get to throw a pass or make a run for it on a trick play. And you’re unlikely to get seriously injured. That said, when you do get injured, it could be something pretty gruesome like broken leg or torn Achilles. Even the rookie minimum contract is something like $700,000, so that’s pretty good money for the work. And you don’t have to get lit up in practice because you’ll probably spend most of your time stretching and working on kicks. No one’s making you do the Oklahoma drill.
So there you have it. NFL punter is the best job in pro sports. Hell, it might even be the best job, period. I mean, just look at how graceful this is.