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Work-Family Comes to the World of Sports

Scott J. Behson
University at Albany, SUNY

The drastic economic and societal changes that have taken place over the past few decades have made conflict between work and family roles a major source of stress for many employees. In keeping with its standing as a pressing social issue, the study of work-family conflict has gathered great momentum in the past few years.

Much of the organizational research into work-family issues has indicated that employers can play a vital role in helping their employees balance the often-competing demands of work and family. In particular, evidence is beginning to accumulate that family friendly human resource policies, such as flextime, telecommuting, day-care services, parental leave, and job-sharing, can provide considerable benefit to both the employee and the organization. Employees can gain greater discretion over the use of their time and financial resources, and the organization can gain in terms of decreased voluntary absenteeism, decreased turnover, improved employee satisfaction, improved public relations, and an improved ability to attract and retain qualified workers in a tight labor market, especially for highly skilled employees (e.g., Galinsky & Stein, 1990).

Now that many businesses are recognizing that family friendly policies can be important for the bottom line, we are beginning to see examples of successful programs being instituted in a wide variety of industries, ranging from human services, manufacturing, and electronics (e.g., Fortune magazine's annual survey of the "Top 100 Companies to Work For"). If you look closely enough, some of these practices have even begun to emerge within the ultra-competitive industry of professional sports.

If the connection between work-family issues and professional sports does not seem obvious to you, you are not alone. There are two reasons why I began to think of these issues together. First, I am conducting my dissertation research on how employees use informal work arrangements to balance their work and their family lives, and I have been doing a considerable amount of reading into how fathers, in particular, manage the work-family pressures they face. Second, I am a complete sports fanatic. While avidly following major pro sports over the past year, three sports-and-family related events stuck out in my mind. These events have led me to the realization that even millionaire athletes struggle with work and family issues, and that they and their employers make minor, and sometimes major, accommodations in order to balance both work and family.

On-Site Day Care with Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire's achievements during the 1998 baseball season are nothing short of awe-inspiring. His 70 home runs obliterated the late Roger Maris's seemingly unbreakable single season record of 61 set back in 1961. Accordingly, McGwire, the first baseman of the St. Louis Cardinals, has been named both Baseball Player of the Year and Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, and was named Co-Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. The magnitude of McGwire's personal achievements, combined with his personable and gregarious demeanor, allowed the sports fans of America to learn a lot about Mr. McGwire's life beyond baseball.

Mr. McGwire is a single, divorced dad, who shares custody of his 10-year old son, Matthew. McGwire has stated in several interviews that his favorite aspect of his historic home run chase was sharing the experience with his son, who accompanied McGwire in the dugout for most of the games leading up to his record-breaking 62nd homer.

There are several enduring images from the night that McGwire broke Maris's record: his swing, the roar of the crowd, his excited trot around the bases, the congratulations offered to him by the opposing team, his embrace of Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs (who also pursued and surpassed Maris's record), the respect McGwire showed to Roger Maris's family, and the enthusiastic greeting his teammates gave him as he reached home plate. However, the defining moment of that night was when McGwire hugged and lifted his son, sharing and savoring the moment with him.

McGwire's son, however, would not have been able to stay in the St. Louis dugout for all those evenings if the Cardinals did not have an informal on-site day care policy, at least for the older children of its employees. If McGwire could not have taken his son with him to work, he would have had to arrange some sort of child care since McGwire's ex-wife lives in another city.

It would be a stretch to say that McGwire's performance would have suffered if Matthew was not by his side. However, it is possible to state that this team day-care policy, as informal as it was, did reduce a major stressor in his life, allowing him to focus on the task at hand. Further, McGwire has gone on record as saying that he wishes to remain a Cardinal for the remainder of his career, and he even took less money to play for this team because of how well the organization treated him.

Allowing the children of players to accompany their dads to work is apparently a common practice among many major league ballclubs. Interviews with second generation baseball players, such as Brett Boone, Ken Griffey Jr., and Todd Hundley, reveal that the time that they spent in their dads' workplace was instrumental in their ability to handle life in the major leagues later on.

It is refreshing to see, that in an industry as competitive as major league baseball, team ownership and management have informally arranged for their players to spend part of their time at work with their families. While the connection between this informal on-site day care policy and performance is tenuous, it has, at least, allowed for baseball players and their children to share some incredible baseball moments and spend some quality time together.

Parental Leave with John Olerud

John Olerud is the first baseman for the New York Mets. While he is not a superstar, he is widely respected as a solid player. His career highlights include winning two World Series championships with the Toronto Blue Jays and winning a batting title in 1993. Mr. Olerud was an important part of the 1998 New York Mets team which contended for the last National League playoff spot until the final game of the season.

While the Mets were embroiled in their race against the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants for the last playoff spot, Mr. Olerud's wife, Kelly, went into labor with the couple's first child, Garrett. The Mets management allowed Mr. Olerud and his impressive .343 batting average to leave the team to participate in Garrett's birth and to spend as much time away from the team as he felt he needed. In all, Olerud missed three games (5 days) for the Mets during this most critical time of the season. "The practice across baseball is that you miss three games... It's one of those understood things," said Mets General Manager, Steve Phillips. The Mets' manager, Bobby Valentine, did not (publicly, at least) put any pressure on Olerud to curtail his paternity leave. He was quoted in the New York Times as supportive of Olerud, "When it's proper, he will be here. John makes good decisions."

Although the Mets are clearly a better team with Olerud in the middle of their batting order, the team fared well during Olerud's absence. From the time he left the team until he returned, the Mets stayed even with the Chicago Cubs for the last playoff spot. In addition, Olerud's performance did not suffer as a result of his absence. In fact, he subsequently raised his batting average to .354 and ended the season with the second-highest batting average in the National League. It wasn't until the final week of the season, well after Olerud returned, that the Mets played poorly, and ended the season without making the playoffs. The Cubs eventually earned the final playoff spot.

It appears to be informal league policy that baseball players can miss up to three games as a sort of makeshift paternity leave at the birth of a child. This is comparable to Pleck's (1993) description of how fathers informally manage the boundaries between work and family, and how organizations provide certain avenues for these informal accommodations.

The Mets allowed Mr. Olerud the discretion to spend time with his wife and newborn child during the most crucial part of the season, where one small mistake could cost the team millions of dollars in playoff revenues. Even though the team failed to reach the playoffs, the informal paternity leave policy did not appear to hurt either Olerud's or his team's performance. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Mets will realize a long-term benefit to their consideration of Olerud's needs through reduced turnover, a better reputation among potential free-agents, and reciprocated loyalty when Olerud's next contract is negotiated.

Job-Sharing with Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson has earned a reputation as being a brilliant, intense, and very dedicated football coach who works as hard as anyone to prepare his team for battle each Sunday. He won a National Collegiate Championship with the University of Miami in 1987 and two Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys in 1992 and 1993. Currently, he is the coach of the Miami Dolphins, whom he has guided to the playoffs each of the past 2 years.

Coach Johnson has admitted in several televised and printed interviews that he often logs 16-hour days when preparing for his weekly opponents. He is a self-admitted workaholic, and has acknowledged that his family life has suffered for it. In fact, in one radio interview a few years ago, he admitted that he didn't celebrate his sons' birthdays, and that it seemed like he only saw his wife while attending social events and making public appearances.

However, towards the end of this season, Coach Johnson's mother died, and this seemed to shift his priorities. Johnson is engaged to be married for the second time, and he has now resolved to spend more time with his fiance, and with his sons. Johnson was on the field coaching the Dolphins the day after his mother died, but now that his father is battling prostate cancer, he does not want to miss out on spending time with his father.

On January 12, 1999, ESPN reported that Coach Johnson had resigned as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, citing the desire to spend more time with family. "When Mother passed away, it opened up my eyes and made me realize I had to spend more time with people I cared about." However, the next day, after a meeting with Dolphins' owner Wayne Huizenga, president Eddie Jones, star quarterback Dan Marino, and other Dolphin officials, Coach Johnson announced that he, in fact, is not resigning. As part of the arrangement to help him stay on as head coach, Dave Wannestedt, the former head coach of the Chicago Bears and former Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator under Johnson, was hired to fully share the head coaching duties with Johnson, under the somewhat paradoxical title of "Assistant Head Coach."

The rationale for such a unique personnel decision was that both Johnson and Wannestedt would share the position of Head Football Coach, with Johnson as the primary of the two head coaches. In his televised press conference on January 13, 1999, Johnson wept while talking about attending his mother's funeral but missing her wake because of work. Johnson also explained that, because of his desire to spend more time on his family and personal life, he needed to make an arrangement to create more free time for himself. "There's a time when you pull back and you say, `Be with people you care about. Don't shortchange them.' That's what I plan on doing."

It remains to be seen how this unprecedented decision to have two men share the duties of head football coach in the NFL will work out. One theory states that two heads are better than one; while another line of thought contends that the players need to have clear lines of authority with one man who is both fully in charge and ultimately accountable for team performance. In any case, Mr. Huizenga and the Miami Dolphins organization have exhibited flexible thinking and individualized consideration, or what Hall (1990) would refer to as a "less rigid form of flexibility." Such an approach seems to be the best solution to alleviating workers' work-family conflicts.

It would have been much easier for the Dolphins to tell Johnson either that they need him to work full time (typically 70_80 hours per week) or that they would find someone else who would. However, by being creative and working for a solution that satisfied this star employee's personal needs, the Dolphins were able to retain Johnson's commanding presence and coaching genius. Other potential benefits of this decision for the Dolphins include: (a) avoiding the expense associated with hiring a new Head Coach in a very competitive labor market (there were five other coaching vacancies at the time), (b) reducing turnover among the current Assistant Coaches who would probably be replaced by a new Head Coach, (c) planning for executive succession as Wannestedt will be groomed for the Head Coach position when Johnson eventually does retire, and (d) avoiding a possible drop-off in performance while the players adjusted to new leadership.


Male professional athletes often get a bad reputation for being careless, absentee, or deadbeat fathers who are constantly on the road, leaving their wives and children to get by as best they can without them. While this perception may be true for some athletes, these three stories opened my eyes to a different side of professional athletics. Many athletes are very dedicated parents who, just like the rest of us, make decisions to alter their work lives in order to accommodate their family responsibilities.

All three of these examples illustrate the widespread importance of work-family issues, and each story contains lessons for I-O research and practice. In the Mark McGwire story, the St. Louis Cardinals probably did not even realize that they were being "family friendly." However, the climate of the team was conducive to work-family balance (Allen, Parker & Kourpounadis, in press; Thompson, Beauvais & Lyness, in press), and allowed for the emergence of informal work-family arrangements by their employees. The John Olerud story demonstrates that, while fathers tend to take much less formal parental leave than their female counterparts (Hall, 1990), many are creative in utilizing available time off and other pre-existing sources of workplace flexibility in order to create makeshift paternity leaves for themselves (Pleck, 1993). Finally, the Jimmy Johnson story shows that formal workplace accommodations, such as job-sharing, which are traditionally seen as appropriate only for lower-level jobs, can be applied to managerial positions. If this arrangement is successful, it may provide justification for businesses in other industries to consider pushing work-family accommodations up the corporate ladder.

In conclusion, these stories provide anecdotal evidence that flexible thinking and informal arrangements can be the key to alleviating some of the stress associated with work and family issues. McGwire, Olerud, and Johnson show that even millionaire superstar athletes struggle with work and family pressures, and can use assistance from their employers in alleviating this source of stress. If the All-Time Home-Run King, a batting champion, and a Super Bowl coach need assistance from their employers to help them balance work and family, it makes a strong case for the near-universal importance of work-family balance in today's business environment.


Allen, T. D., Parker, L. B. & Kourpounadis, A. (in press). Walking the family friendly talk: Development of a measure of organizational climate for work/nonwork balance. Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Associated Press. (1999, January 14). Jimmy stays as Miami coach. Available: Espn.go.com/nfl/news/1999 /990113/01044119.html.

Curry, J. (1998, September 9). A reluctant home-run hitter, a reluctant hero: Mark David McGwire. The New York Times. p. D3.

Galinsky, E. & Stein, P. J. (1990). The impact of human resource policies on employees. Journal of Family Issues, 11, 368_383.

Hall, D. T. (1990). Promoting work/family balance: An organization change approach. Organizational Dynamics, 18, 3, 5_18.

Mets are waiting for Olerud. (1998, September 12). The New York Times, p. D5.

Pleck, J. H. (1993). Are "family-supportive" employer policies relevant to men? In Hood, J. C. (Ed.) Men, Work, and Family. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Thompson, C. A., Beauvais, L. & Lyness, K. S. (in press). When work-family benefits are not enough... The influence of work-family culture on benefit utilization, organizational attachment, and work-family conflict. Journal of Vocational Behavior.

Wannestedt joins Johnson in Miami. (1999, January 14). Sports Ticker Article. Available: Nfl.com/dolphins /news/990114johnson.html.

Author Notes

Scott J. Behson is a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY. Please send comments to SB2087@CNSVAX.ALBANY.EDU.

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