There are many things in sports that signal an end to a situation: a called third strike that announces the end of a rally in the bottom of the ninth… the whistle that is blown to signal game over… the loud horn that says it was too late, the puck did not score… or the 24 second siren saying the ball wasn’t shot in the allotted time.
The harshest words, however to any athlete, are “game over!” Especially when there are no more innings, quarters, halves, or games to be played and your career has ended.
It’s over! No longer are you patted on the back! No longer do your former multitude of fans clamor for your attention! No longer are there free drinks and meals. For the most part, the adoration is gone.
Many athletes face the residual damage acquired from years of physical pounding and injury. Many columns have been written about those instances. In fact, I have also written on that subject more than once.
However, I feel there is an even larger problem! We must wonder how ill prepared NFL Players seem to be for their transition to retirement. Most players have never made the big money. In fact as late as 1975, most players were making less than $75,000.
Since my involvement with the NFLPA during the 1981-82 strike, I have been asking myself what are the NFL Post-Career obligations? The NFLPA strike slogan was “we are the game”. Working with Ed Garvey, Dick Bertelsen, Dick Allen, Gene Upshaw and my fellow commissioner of the Strike Games, Brig Owen, we fought to give the retirees a better chance.
Frank Woschitz headed up the NFLPA Alumni service group. He worked hard to enact special training for Players during their careers that would prove useful when their careers were over.
Hall of Fame Linebacker Junior Seau’s suicide brought into focus the lingering effects of concussions and subsequently brain trauma.
Thanks to the efforts of Sylvia Mackey and others, the NFL has been forced to deal with this problem head-on, (no pun intended), with better medical evaluations during the player’s career and contributing monetarily to resulting medical problems after a career is over.
Prior to the 1990s, the vast majority prepared themselves for careers when their playing days were done. The advent of multi-million dollar contracts was only just evolving. The off-season in the 70s and the 80s was just that an offseason. Players had time to pursue other business ventures and if they wished, return to school. During that time, many players cultivated local benefactors for jobs and work. This often led to post- career opportunities in the community they played.
In those days, the regular season started in September and ended in December. The Super Bowl was played in Mid-January. The players did not report to the training complexes until July. There were only one, or two Exhibition games prior to the actual start of the season.
Today, however, from the beginning of training camp, there is no time off… with multiple exhibition games until the culmination in the Super Bowl.
In earlier times, many players used this off-season opportunity to get an education. The Dolphins great linebacker Nick Buoniconti, for example, used that period to get his law degree. Another Dolphin, Doug Swift used the time to get his Medical Degree. Many others went the education route seeking different degrees.
Today’s players have has to devote all their energies into making the team and staying on the team, every step of the way. Since the earliest times from high school through college through the NFL, developing football skills has been the player’s complete focus as well as the priority of their coaches.
Their retirement transition also can be inhibited physically. They spend years building bulk, eating large meals to keeping up weight always under the watchful eyes of their overlords: the coaches.
In addition, the player has spent years of eating large meals on a regular basis while working out an extraordinary amount of hours per week. They have been told when to eat, when to sleep and even how to dress.
Then suddenly it’s over! Unlike most businesses, almost every NFL player is either fired, or forced to retire. Having lived a structured lifestyle for 26 weeks, they now have too much time on their hands… not knowing what to do.
According to Sports Illustrated, 50% of ex-football players’ marriages end in divorce… many in the first retirement year. Sports Illustrated also claims that 78% of Post-NFL athletes are broke within 2 to 5 years of retirement.
So, I ask the question… “Don’t you think we, fans, should point out to the NFL, the need to take care of their own and prepare them for the transition while they are still playing?
The NFL has an obligation that has obviously somehow fallen through the cracks. The Players are the game!
Sheldon Saltman has worked world-wide as an event producer, author, lecturer and a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Saltman began his carrer as a high school play-by-play announcer and eventually became the President of FOX Sports. He has received numerous industry and education awards.