Jeffrey Chadiha’s very good story about the difficulties former NFL athletes face after they leave the league is an interesting read, even if you feel you’ve already seen and read countless varieties of this story.
We know the drill: Many professional athletes are terrible with their money. There are quite a few explanations for this, including poor advice from hangers-on, inadequate education on the topic of money management, a desire to keep up with the spending habits of one’s peers and teammates and an overall perception that their riches and their careers could last forever.
There’s something else in Chadiha’s story though, summed up by this line: “They also know about financial ruin, imploded marriages and the emotional trauma that comes with thinking your life peaked in your 20s.” For many of these athletes, this isn’t just a perception; when you have spent years practicing and training and honing your abilities, and when your entire body and being is focused on achieving the highest level of success at the sport, and when your successes (or those of your team) are cheered by thousands of strangers and viewed by millions of fans, your life does revolve around this sport. (I’m speculating, obviously, but this is based on hearing/reading I can’t even tell you how many quotes and reminiscences from current and former athletes.) And when the lights go out and you step aside, your years of effort having culminated in reaching the show, of course it looks like It’s All Downhill From Here.
A very large part of this comes from the inadequate preparation many athletes face along the way to playing professional sports. As always, a chunk of blame can be sent the NCAA’s way; collegiate athletes play (for free) on what are essentially farm teams for the professional sports leagues, and even though the overwhelming majority of these athletes will never play a moment of professional ball, there are many who are clearly heading that way. These athletes know their classes and potential degrees mean nothing, because for many of them, they won’t have any incentive to stay once they know they can go pro. If a college were able to, say, pay some of their athletes, and if they were able to pair said payments with mandatory financial management lessons, and if colleges were able to admit that for some athletes the offer of “free books and tuition” is meaningless because these athletes could be on and off campus in a matter of months, they would be less complicit in this whole thing. Instead, these schools continue to profit enormously from the successes of the athletes who, at most, only cost the college a limited sum in the form of scholarships.
There is also the reality of the limited shelf life of an athlete. This is considered particularly egregious in the NFL, where the average career lasts for just over three years. The NFL would like you to disregard that number, lest people start thinking of the league as a parasite that uses up and disregards human beings. (That is where this NFL-issued clarification came from, assuring us that if a player makes an opening day roster or is a first-round draft pick, their career lasts much longer; of course, the overwhelming majority of players do not fall into either category, but the NFL would rather you not think about that.)
Speaking as a fan, I know it’s difficult to separate the spectacle from the reality when it comes to the NFL (and the NBA, and the NCAA’s leagues, and so on). We watch for the entertainment and we cheer for the teams and the players, but we often forget that those jerseys are worn and the consequences borne by real people. It’s also very easy to forget just how fragile the life of an athlete is, because we know many of them are being paid massive amounts of money to play a game for a living. But most of them are not the stars taking home astronomical sums of cash. Most of them are people who work very hard to make it into a league where they will almost assuredly not last for very long. Most of them are people who will practice and work and train to do one thing, and when that one thing is out of their reach, they will have to struggle with entering (or reentering) the real world.