You’ve trained countless hours to reach the highest level of football: the NFL. All those years of hard work, training, and experience have allowed you to live your dream. However, the day has come for you to retire.
You’re only 29.
What do you when your life turns upside down? When the very framework by which you defined yourself, for the majority of your life, goes away. How do players like Sidney Rice cope with such drastic change in circumstance?
In October of 2012, ESPN Films released a 30 for 30 episode titled Broke, which documented the many ways professional athletes lose their money. The numbers were shocking to people who weren’t familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of an athlete’s life: For example, 78 percent of NFL players are broke within five years of retirement.
One thing was for certain from this documentary, and recurring themes linked with stories of those profiled: Athletes were spending their money on cars, houses, family, and friends. The money that was meant to last a lifetime was burned and gone forever. As important as Billy Corben’s film was, it primarily focused on the financial turmoil in players lives – the means by which an athlete and their money are soon parted. Unfortunately, there’s also another, much deeper reason so many athletes struggle to get on their feet once they leave the NFL. It’s one that still hasn’t been addressed, even years later.
There is a psychological scarring endemic to players who’ve defined themselves by a very specific worldview, who have built their lives on a strong foundation they believed was forever, and then watched it all get stripped away. It’s a harsh reality for athletes who go from being on top of the world back to everyday life.
Generally speaking, a life in the NFL is pretty interesting. During the season, for instance, your days are tightly scheduled. Get up during this time. Eat at this hour. Visit the training staff who specialize in nutrition to help you focus on goals towards better health since “You need to add more muscle before the season.” Practice during these hours. Show up at this location for the bus, show up here for the plane, and you better not be late.
A life in the NFL is easily constructed around these rules, and athletes, like Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas, know what their roles and responsibilities are. There is a comfort in routine, a sense of easy familiarity. The paychecks enter your account on this day, the game is scheduled for that day, and at all times you know where you need to be.
The off-season, on the other hand, is a little bit different since your schedule covers weeks instead of days, but there are still, of course plenty of checks to come. This date marks the start of spring conditioning and workouts. That date marks OTAs. Minicamp starts on this day, and we’re back in season. The structure remains, ticking regularly as clockwork.
Then one day you’re done.
You take an exit physical, then you go home. The tightly structured life you once lived for the past decade is now gone, vanished as if it never existed. No one tells you what to do now. No one helps you figure out a new routine. This is where athletes break and turn to alcohol and other substances to escape the harsh reality.
Those athletes with an intense drive to be the best will no longer value their abilities. The willingness to ignore risks, both physically and mentally is also gone. You couldn’t get intoxicated before the game, because that would have affected your play making abilities, but now? What’s to stop you? Especially with the pain in your joints. There’s no coaching staff or teammate around to warn you about stepping out of line, or that your focus is slipping. There’s no locker room filled with other teammates you can mess around with about small problems before they turn into big ones. It’s just you and probably your partner, who also trying to adjust to the recent change as well.
Sadly, many former NFL players and their loved ones don’t adjust to the change. In fact, the majority of them will end up divorced, the transition too difficult to adjust to, a life of love is now reduced to arguing about medical bills, lack of income and who contributes what to the household. This is no way to spend your retirement years. Divorce should be the last thing on your mind, as it will just continue to add to the pressure that you are already under. You can’t spend the way you use to, since the paychecks aren’t rolling in anymore, but would you recognize that in time? Friends and family believe you’ve made enough to fund anything they want; after all, you’re the big shot athlete.
To make matters worse, about half of the players in the NFL won’t even qualify for pension benefits in the first place, so there’s another safety net they can’t rely on. How is that possible given everything we know.
The answer’s simple, greed. Those who see players and other human beings as just another commodity to be used and discarded once it no longer serves a purpose. After all, the NFL technically doesn’t have any obligation to help former players transition to their new life. Older players had to fight for years just to simply get medical benefits. The concussion investigation is still ongoing, since brain trauma and football go hand-in-hand. The league, however, refuses to admit fault.
In the end, athletes will continue to speak out against the league policies once retired, unless something is done to help them. Professional sports owe it to their players to help them find new structures in their personal lives; to help them transition back into the “real world.” Fans should also demand accountability from the business they prioritize for entertainment, not just for players, but for those who have since retired and left the game of football. Otherwise, professional athletes who participate in all sporting events – both men and women – will continue to leave the game they love so much broken.