June 7th, 2012 by Nat Coombs
It’s strangely predictable that the critical mass who spew vitriol at our generation’s “overpaid, spoilt athletes” rarely, if ever, offer sympathy when a sports stars’ career doesn’t work out. And most of the time, for athletes, things don’t work out.
Take the case of Asher Allen [pic right], the Georgia-born cornerback who retired last week aged just 24 after just 3 seasons in the NFL. The Vikings insist it wasn’t for health reasons – though Allen was placed on IR last year because of concussion related problems – but rather a personal choice, and suggested that he had fallen out of love with the game.
This happens, of course, though it’s highly possible that he’d looked at the sad demise of various veterans including former Bears safety Dave Duerson – who had suffered from concussive related problems and is widely believed to have taken his own life in such a way that would preserve his brain for study – and got out while the going was (moderately) good.
Irrespective of the true reason for his decision, Allen’s case magnifies the less palatable side of pro sports that fame, fast cars, trophy wives and an extended entourage don’t show.
For most players careers are over almost as quickly as they’ve begun.
The NFL Players Association says the average career in the big leagues is 3.3 years – worse if you’re a running back (under 3 years), above average if you’re a kicker (over 4 years).
Sure, if you’re Matthew Stafford [pic right] or Matt Ryan you’re pretty much made for life with the pre-CBA realignment mega-bucks deals. But what if you’re on the league minimum $375,000 a year?
Sounds a lot, right? Shave about half of it away for tax plus your agent’s cut.. Then there’s the flash car you treated yourself too once you finally made it to the pros, and the status you need to maintain in a modern blingtastic locker room. Did we mention the entourage? Oh, and the house. You can’t be a self-respecting NFL stud living in a one bedroom apartment, now can you?
Discount it as weakness and excess but the peer pressure culture of the pros is hard to ignore – particularly when achieving your goals is dependent on a self belief that you’re the center of the universe.
This is especially true in the case of rookies. And not just any rookie: a rookie who has made it as a professional. Just like young adults never think even consider death, young athletes never contemplate a life without sports. They can’t because the moment they do that, they’re weak.
Then there’s the life you’ve got to work out following your exit from the league. Earning a million is obviously a fair whack of cash, but when you break it down over 40 years – most regular people’s career shelf life – it doesn’t end up going very far. Sure, nothing is stopping a player securing career a second career – and many of them do this successfully, but what about the ones that don’t or can’t?
The void left once playing comes to an end is consistently cited by ex-athletes as the hardest thing to combat, and it’s usually not the lack of adulation (or funds) that’s being missed. How easy is it to accept that white collar everyman gig after being the big guy on the block since Junior High, through High School, into College and beyond?
In 2009 Sports Illustrated reported that 78% of former NFL players find themselves bankrupt or under acute financial stress within two years of retiring. And these cases aren’t just connected to short playing careers. You can reach – and stay – at the very top – and still have nothing to show for it after it’s all said and done.
The much publicized case of Warren Sapp [pic right] – who filed for bankruptcy earlier this year owing more than $6.7 million dollars – isn’t unique. Last year, Terrell Owens – one of the finest players of his generation claimed he was “in hell” due to his desperate financial situation. Allen Iverson earned over $150 million during his illustrious NBA career yet was reportedly bankrupt in March.
Undoubted excess, and indeed relativity – how much sympathy can you really have for someone like TO vs. a single mother trying to raise 4 kids on the poverty line – temper the sympathy. But for every case of extravagant spending and ill thought relationships there’s the twisted knee on the training field that is never quite right again, or the Head Coach that gets fired only to be replaced by someone that just doesn’t rate you in the same way and duly cuts you with a cursory “I’m sorry, son.”
No doubt there’s a difference between making it to the pros and making a career: it’s hard enough to dazzle in High School to get to the College ranks, yet the chances of the latter who even get to be involved in the NFL is around two percent.
And it’s an even bigger jump between the 2% that do get to the big show and the ones who manage to establish a secure life when their (brief) playing days are over.
Each year, for every Calvin Johnson mega-deal, there are dozens of practice squad receivers quietly let go without any bluster or consequence. Across America minor league ball players – signed to a pro contract but light years away from turning out at Fenway Park – scrap their way to a .245 AAA average, hanging on and hoping they may get the call, deep down acutely aware that when they do, it won’t be a call up.
And these guys are not the exception. They’re the rule. Life – or not – in the big leagues.
To read Nat’s previous blogs on the MLB (and NFL) including Red Sox Damnation and Bluffer’s Guide to the Draft, click here.
NAT COOMBS is a writer, broadcaster and studio host on our partner channel ESPN. He covers both NFL and MLB on BBC Radio Five Live in the UK, and anchors the US Sports podcast Americarnage.
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