Sports  After the lights go out

The plight of pro athletes after retirement

The lure of the game is strong. The money, the fame, the thrill of winning is enough to keep athletes coming back, to keep straining their bodies, to endure the scrapes and injuries inherent in every sport. We see athletes that keep hanging on, keep coming back for just one more year, to taste glory one last time, despite the fact that their injuries are getting worse and worse. But what happens to these people when their career is over? For the large majority of players who don’t go into broadcasting or other high paying jobs after their careers, the answer is not comforting.

Our heroes do not go gracefully into their twilights. The collection of strains and injuries that one player can acquire over a whole career can grind away at the body and make life after sports physically difficult. There are football players today with mangled fingers from crunching battles in the trenches, or formery able-bodied athletes who now have trouble walking without a limp. Some players  regret not retiring earlier because they are unable to play with their children. Basketball players must deal with their balky knees that are worn from years of jumping The list goes on and on.

For every athlete, there are also the long-term effects of concussions. Research has shown that even athletes who are never diagnosed with a concussion often suffer from a series of minor bruises to the brain, which can lead to long-term damage.  Players that did not compete during our current era of concussion awareness are afflicted with splitting headaches, dementia, or even Alzheimers.

For many athletes, the dream of going pro and playing in the big leagues has gotten in the way of getting an education. Someone whose sports career has been cut short by injury, or by not being quite good enough, is often left without enough money to live on and must scramble to find a new career despite not having many other marketable skills.

Yes, for the superstars – the most talented or famous of the bunch – life is good after retirement. But there are far more players that face a hugely different reality after their sports careers.

It would be nice to think that the leagues – the ones for which these athletes sacrificed everything  – would give back to the players in retirement  and make sure that their lives are as comfortable as possible, especially for those in dire need. But the leagues have mostly let their athletes down. The different leagues’ pension plans and post-retirement medical benefits do not match the level of sacrifice that the players have given.

Take the NFL, for instance. This is the league in which players’ careers are usually the shortest and most filled with injury. The NFL has a pension plan for retired players, but it only begins once they turn 55, many years after most players end their careers. Even then, it is based on years of service and doesn’t amount to much. Darrell Green, who played for the NFL for twenty years, now receives $70,000 per year, or $290 per month per year of service (a total of $5,800 per month). In addition, the NFL  often does not hand out disability payments to athletes with medical problems. This forced one player, Mike Webster, who was overwhelmed with rising medical costs, into homelessness. He was an offensive lineman. Sporting News named him the 75th best player in the NFL of all time in 1999. He suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression. In his autopsy, the doctors discovered that he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This condition has gained much media attention in the past few years, bringing about an awareness of the dangers of concussions. For a game that is so inherently violent, this kind of callous disregard for retired players is hard to fathom. The retired players of the NFL have attempted a lawsuit against the league, asking for better benefits and pay, but the case is slow moving.

This is the sad plight of most retired athletes: once they have stopped being moneymakers for the league, they are tossed aside.  With the increased corporatization of sports, the game has become more and more of a business, and the players have increasingly become commodities. They are a means to an end. Once they stop being useful, the league sees no reason to keep supporting them, and  many professional athletes are left out in the cold.

Sure, the teams will bring them back for an alumni day, honor them every once in a while, but this sort of celebration looks past  athletes as humans and once again commodifies them. After that glimpse of support, the retiree will be put back into the dark, forced to struggle alone against their mental, physical, and financial problems.

There are some that make it through and leverage their former careers into a sustainable job elsewhere. Some are able to provide for themselves and their families and to mend their aching bodies. But there are many others – players we won’t hear about – who struggle. They go through their old age fitfully and in pain, waiting for help that will not come. Was all that strain worth it, then?