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The Downside of Being a Football Hero

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There was this young woman with whom I shared two things in common. We were both freshmen at Temple University, and we both hailed from the Pittsburgh area. I was more boy than man at the time, she, on the other hand, was more woman than girl, and a strikingly beautiful woman at that. I was thoroughly intimidated by her, and I wasn't alone by a long shot. One day she approached me in the lobby of our dorm and began a conversation. I was shocked that she acknowledged that I was alive, but even more surprised at the topic of the conversation. She asked me if I happened to know any of the players on the Philadelphia 76ers. At the time it seemed to be a strange thing to ask of someone who was at least as new to the city as she was, and having no special status to speak of; or so I thought.

In retrospect I could see what might have motivated her to question me. In addition to being a football walk on, my older brother, a senior, was on the track team. My circle of acquaintances was full of athletes, friends of my brother who quickly took me under their wings; but even considering that her question seemed to me to be beyond ridiculous. She might as well have asked me whether I knew anyone at the White House.

Nonetheless, I was flattered to have her attention, and I wanted to linger in her orbit as long as I could, so I continued the conversation pretending that I didn't think that it was absurd.

"So," I asked, "which one of them did you want to meet?"

"Oh, it doesn't matter, any of them."

I got it. Even as an immature, naïve 18-something I recognized that I was in the presence of a predator. I remember at the time being very grateful that I didn't have anything that this woman could possibly want, because there was no doubt in my mind that she would have gotten it whether I would have wanted to give it to her or not.

This memory came to mind as I meditated upon the aftermath of the apparent suicide of Junior Seau. People appeared to be surprised and perplexed by an event like this, presumably because we are accustomed to think of individuals like Seau, an elite professional athlete, as occupying a highly enviable position in life. There is no doubt that many, if not most of us envy successful NFL players (or any NFL players for that matter). Part of the excitement the past week has been to see the incoming class of draftees and undrafted free agents trying to come to terms with the fact that they are now so tantalizingly close to fulfilling dreams of becoming part of this elite fraternity with all of its apparent perks.

But upon closer examination how enviable is it? Would it be worth it to shave years off your life or decades off the quality of your life for a few years at the top? This, of course, alludes to the player safety concerns that are so much in the news at the moment. But I'm not going to focus upon that here. Just as intriguing to me is the question of whether there are issues that might cause distress or depression among former players even if you take the physical and mental deterioration off the table. Is being an NFL celebrity all it's cracked up to be?

There is no question that being a celebrity athlete puts a person in a position of very high prestige and has many additional rewards, including financial. But there are also problems, traps if you will, that are also associated with this status. Among those, and this is particularly true for NFL players, is the extremely short shelf life of being at the top. The position of all celebrities can be viewed as precarious, but like Hollywood starlets and fashion models, a professional football player's gifts will abandon him quickly with much less of a chance to extend the party through the methods available to the former such as surgery or chemical methods.

And then what?

Part of the problem is that the aspiring athlete is often betrayed by the very people he needs to guide him to the top. If a young man demonstrates that he has an athletic gift that could be cultivated to the point of greatness then some peculiar things can begin to happen. A lot depends on whether the people surrounding the athlete are well grounded and have a clue as to what the pathway to true success really is with knowledge as well of the attendant pitfalls. Without that then one can be immersed in a cesspool of greed, ego, envy and acquiescence.

Rebecca Rollett in her most recent article on Maximizing the Potential of the Draft Class (Part III) speaks to the importance of getting a strong formal education as a necessary developmental step for the professional athlete. But I am absolutely certain that her argument (absolutely correct in my estimation) runs counter to the message that he has received from guides and supporters from the moment that it was clear that he had the potential to achieve at a high level. In their view education was simply a necessary annoyance, something to be tolerated for the sake of maintaining eligibility, only a stepping stone to the real prize; that being that first professional paycheck at which point a peak would have been reached that most ‘educated' people would never attain. If there was anything that was needed, such as financial management, for example, it could be bought. Anyone who put their foot down and insisted otherwise, especially if they were not part of the athlete's inner circle, and sometimes if they were, risked being marginalized. Tremendous status can accrue to someone who can claim to simply being acquainted to a successful athlete. Do you risk that status by insisting that long term success involves more than working on one's game?

I noticed that when describing some of the Steelers recent draft picks and UDFAs the term ‘gym rat' was used frequently. This was viewed as a positive, and given the context I would be inclined to agree. Rebecca's article also pointed out the fact that a strong work ethic is likely to be an essential component to success. But there is a potential downside. What we term as a gym rat in athletic circles might be called a workaholic in others. The problem is one of balance. The single minded pursuit of success in one aspect of life often results in difficulties associated with neglect in others.

I had the good fortune of dating a celebrity. She was beautiful, brilliant and very good at her craft. But in many ways she was also a social troglodyte. This is not so much an issue of character as it is one of experience, though that experience can shape character in significant ways. A gym rat/workaholic is by definition one who lives a sheltered existence. One aspect of life is strengthened while others atrophy from lack of exposure and exercise.

What makes this a significant issue, and often goes over the heads of us so called level headed observers is that in order to successfully navigate a different, usually higher class level, the challenge is not merely financial but social as well. There are values and behaviors that must be mastered in order to survive at these rarified levels. This is one of the reasons that lotto winners usually fail so spectacularly. To live a successful middle class existence is not just attaining a certain financial level but also adopting a certain values orientation as well. Imagine how daunting it is for someone who is trying to rise from the underclass, in essence trying to skip multiple class levels in order to succeed. It's been done, but...

One thing working in favor of the celebrity, particularly the celebrity athlete is that there are an entire class of parasites that are eager and anxious to help him make that transition; coaches, academic tutors, agents, financial advisors, women who are just as adept at catching men like him as he is at catching touchdown passes. A question, usually unexamined is who manages the managers? Do these people help the athlete make a successful leap to this higher class status, or are they enablers who help him to remain a financial and social cripple who will probably fail as soon as the NFL no longer has any need for his services? We can even put aside the question of ethics and ask whether these helpers are competent at what they do, or are they winging it as well?

So let's pause for a moment and review. You have a 20-something young man who may be immature beyond his years because of the sheltered, some would say even pampered, nature of his existence. He is surrounded by predators attracted to the glitz and the high stakes, high reward nature of his environment. Some of these predators are people who you might ordinarily expect to be the one group a person in this position could trust; his family. All too often the fever of fame and fortune leads to the abdication of parental responsibilities. This child is anointed head of the household and is now responsible for mortgage payments, college tuition, the resolution of debt and the financing of fantasies for the extended family.

And, of course, for the professional football player, the clock is ticking. Because my celebrity friend was a singer she has been able to make a successful living for literally decades. A football player considers himself fortunate for one decade of success. More commonly it is much less than that.

Now, more often than not folks just aren't too sympathetic. These guys make a lot of money, or so they say. But do they? To be sure they make a lot more money than they used to.

The first professional football player I ever met was a Steelers running back by the name of Cannonball Butler. He was working as a substitute gym teacher at my elementary school. He wasn't slumming. In those days football players didn't make enough money playing the game to finance a working or middle class lifestyle. They had to take off season jobs to help make ends meet and to prepare themselves for, as Chuck Noll said their life's work. Today the nature of the industry is such that salaries are much higher. And for a few players (I'm thinking guys like Peyton Manning) the compensation is such that their lives have probably been idiot proofed. Even so, I read recently that over three quarters of football players will declare bankruptcy two years after the completion of their careers. Are these guys just idiots?

Maybe. But let's do a little thought experiment.

Let's assume that you are a successful professional who makes an average of over a six figure salary during the course of a 30 year career. However, in this particular alternate universe your salary for this three decade period will be paid out over a six year period in the front end of your career. So, you sign a contract paying you 3.6 million dollars during the first six years on the job. You will make five hundred grand a year, plus one lump sum payment of six hundred grand the first year (a signing bonus?). And then no more money for the rest of your career.

How do you think that'll play out?

A friend of mine, a successful businessman told me over this past weekend that his business had its ups and downs, but one thing remained remarkably consistent; his wife always spent twenty percent more money than they actually had. In a culture that is predicated upon materialism and consumption this is probably closer to the rule rather than the exception; we will spend at or beyond our means. Remember too that these are the dumb years, the 20s. There will be wiser heads in your orbit, but will you have the good sense to listen to them? In that hypothetical first year your means will be 1.1 million dollars. Do you buy a nice little economical hybrid or like ex-Steeler Leon Searcy do you use a limousine service? Do you purchase a condo, or a McMansion or something even more palatial? Consider also the fact that in the case of the football player they may be ‘paling around' with others who occupy the upper strata of society (but are on a much more stable footing) and there will be pressure to live in a manner that indicates that you belong. Under these circumstances how well do you think you would do?

There's more. Compared to other professional athletes like Major League baseball players and NBA basketball players, NFL players really get chumped in the area of compensation. The physical risks are enormous and pretty much universal. The compensation is not only less, but also largely unguaranteed. How many players ever receive the full value of their contracts? Not to say that many players don't successfully manage their money or leverage the tremendous networking opportunities available and end up better than just landing on their feet. Many do. Many don't.

What about the psychological challenges of going back to Palookaville? Fortunately, most of us can't miss what we never had. What's it like to be washed up at 30? What's it like to on the way down when all of your peers are on the way up? I've wondered over the years about the woman mentioned at the beginning of this piece and whether she would have stuck around after her celebrity boyfriend/husband took a job as a gym teacher and a high school football coach. And even if she did would he be free from doubt as to how solid their relationship was under the changed set of circumstances. Marriages have collapsed from a lot less. And how does it feel to be, perhaps, still admired, even worshiped, but all the conversations are about the past, never about the present or the future?

The assumption is that Junior Seau's apparent suicide may be linked to the possible consequences of head trauma, and that might well be true. I certainly don't have any idea what the actual circumstances of his death were. But the transition to life beyond the NFL holds challenges on a variety of levels. I wonder if we'll ever know what killed him.