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This article was the cover story for the November 4, 2009 issue of the San Diego Reader. The article was written by Thomas Larson and it features two of the partners of Winning Mind, Marc Sagal and Geoff Miller.
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If ever there were a San Diego Charger whose postcareer success has matched his years spent on the field, it’s the great Ron Mix. Mix’s glory years came in the 1960s, when the Chargers were in the American Football League. Back in the day, Mix was listed at 6’ 4” and 250 pounds, known as a weight lifter long before football players commonly pumped iron, and nicknamed the “Intellectual Assassin.” On the field, he achieved something that’s never been equaled: in ten seasons, he had two holding calls against him. Off the field, he blazed a trail by becoming one of the few players to earn a law degree — he graduated from the University of San Diego law school in 1969 — and one of the very few who got the degree during his career, not after he hung up his cleats.
Today, at 71, Mix still practices — law, that is, not football. From new offices in Mission Valley, Mix displays only one football memento: high up on a bookcase is his white helmet, emblazoned with the yellow bolt and his number, 74, on the side. It’s safe inside a plastic box, not only heralding an illustrious career, which got him elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, but also reminding us that there is life after sport.
Mix says that too many athletes today have “dismal postcareer lives.” There’s a touch of anger if not frustration in his voice. He calls their troubles “startling, sad, pathetic, and outrageous.” He’s speaking of the rise in bankruptcies, marital infidelities, and divorces, as well as legal and personal screwups, the sordidness exposed by our gotcha media. The names in the circus of ex-football clowns are legend: Lawrence Taylor, Ryan Leaf, O.J. Simpson.
How much has changed since his playing days? Nothing and everything. In the 1960s, Mix tells me, athletes prepared for life after football. Unlike today’s players, they worked in the off-season, usually “part-time for a company and setting the foundation to build a career. Or they attended school.” It was, he says, “commonly accepted” that you’d be moving on. Back then, the money was good, “more than the average person made. But we probably spent more too.” After retirement, Mix says, even those who’d saved their money had only enough to live on for a year. Eventually, everyone needed a job.
Among the Chargers he played with, several got law degrees, one became a dentist, others earned degrees in business and education. Perhaps his most famous teammate was Jack Kemp, who died earlier this year and who had a short-lived career with San Diego. Kemp demonstrated an ability to mediate conflicts, helping, along with Mix and others, to establish a players’ association. Within a year of leaving the Buffalo Bills, he was swooped up by New York’s Republican Party, put on the ballot, and elected to Congress.
But then again, the culture of football hasn’t changed much; its problems are perennial. The socioeconomic profile of players, Mix notes, remains the same. Mostly low-income kids, raised by single mothers, with few differences between blacks and whites. Mix grew up in the Russian-Jewish ghetto of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. His parents divorced early, and his mother raised the children. “Most of our time was spent on welfare.” Coming from poverty, he says, no one had “business sophistication in my family or in my circle of friends.” Another constant among players: young fatherless men value male role models, especially “coaches. So they grow up to trust adult supervisors.” They learn from these men that “sportsmanship — integrity and fair play — is at the root of the game.” But “the athlete becomes too trusting; he thinks people can be trusted. But that’s not the way of the business world. So he’s susceptible to being fooled and cheated.” Players are an “easy touch” for family and friends, Mix says, because the player is sympathetic to those who are stuck behind in the poor neighborhood.
What’s more, then as now, “Athletes don’t receive a good education in college.” And it’s not because they’re being denied one. Rather, Mix says, “Playing a major sport at a major university is more difficult than if the athlete is working a full-time job and going to school. They take up so much of your time: practice, meetings, games, travel. And injury treatment. If you’re a football player, you semi-live in that training room, before and after practice. Weekends for study? No, there’s a game to be played. What about Sunday? No, there’s injury treatment.”
Without an education, athletes, he says, have no “skills to offer an employer once they retire.” Even if they got their degree, after a pro career they’ve forgotten what they learned, and they’re at a disadvantage, starting out in a field where most of their competition is five to ten years younger.
When Mix retired from football, he practiced civil litigation. Six years ago, a friend, a former National Basketball Association player, told him that he’d been at a conference of retired NBA players and noticed most were limping. His friend asked the wounded warriors why they hadn’t filed workers’ compensation claims. “That was a foreign word to them,” his friend said.
The following year Mix was invited to speak. Recalling the confab now in a slow-measured cadence, the epitome of “don’t get excited,” Mix remembers telling the men that every team buys workers’ compensation insurance. Ex-players who have ongoing injuries can file claims against the team and its insurance carrier. “Nobody gets rich, but it can be significant money. Second-chance money.” An injured ex-pro may receive a tax-free award for permanent disability; a lifetime pension if he is 70 percent or more disabled, roughly $5000 to $10,000 a year; or lifetime medical care focused on the particular hurt. Mix signed up 100 players and came away from that convention “with a law practice,” “a nice little niche.” Since then, he has won every case he’s filed.
One case Mix is working on is that of former Charger star Eric Parker. The agile wide receiver and punt returner signed a five-year deal in 2006 that would have paid him $1.85 million in 2008. But a painful injury to his big toe — requiring three surgeries, and even then a bone in the ball of his foot refused to heal fully — forced him last year “to hang it up.” An end, he tells me by phone, he doesn’t regret. During a short but intense career (between 2003 and 2008, he was third in receptions, with most of his catches from Drew Brees), “I had nothing but smooth sailing with the Chargers.” Parker recalls two concussions as well as injuries to his ankle, back, and shoulder. “Nothing uncommon,” he says. He retired because, as a receiver, “I couldn’t take off on the foot or stop on it like I used to.” He’s hoping his claim will pay for a trauma he’ll always need to nurse, especially in his new job as wide receivers’ coach at Helix High School. The hardest part of retiring for Parker was being unable to compete, which he’d done since age three. “It’s over so fast. Imagine a musician who can’t play anymore, can’t do what he’s so good at. I feel just like that.”
In addition to position-related injuries, Mix says, “All players — and notice I didn’t say ‘some,’ but all — have early degenerative arthritis in all their joints and spine. It comes from what we call ‘cumulative trauma,’ which means wear and tear over their career.” (Eric Parker says he was told at various Charger seminars that most guys would develop arthritis from playing in the NFL.) “The body is subjected,” Mix continues, “to thousands of mini-traumas when players hit and get hit, run, jump, lift weights. Lifting heavy weights is a major contributor.
“Those who play sports that involve head contact,” football and soccer (heading the ball), “often have neurological problems. Diminished memory. Inability to focus or concentrate.” Those with head trauma or concussions have, Mix says, “a much higher incidence of early Alzheimer’s disease than the general public.” Confirming this is a just-released study, commissioned by the NFL, that Alzheimer’s and other memory-related diseases occur in ex-players aged 30 to 49 at 19 times the normal rate.
In addition, Mix continues, all players take a lot of anti-inflammatory drugs and pain medications, and “when these are ingested regularly, they can lead to gastrointestinal problems and kidney irregularities.” All these conditions greatly “diminish their ability to compete in a marketplace” against guys who have not endured the battles of the professional athlete.
Mix filed and won his own claim for injury. And, he insists, every player has a “legitimate claim.” All of them should file a claim within a year of retirement. Sadly, he says, the majority don’t. Making it tougher is that none of the players’ associations in the major sports have created programs to help retired players. They have made the financial and medical benefits of active players sweeter. But that’s it. Mix says that current players have no “legal responsibility” to help their ex-brethren. “But they do have a moral responsibility.” He says it’s wise for players now to plan their postcareers. “They may spend 10 years as a player, but they’re going to spend 40 years as a retired player. They’re one injury away from retirement.”
One final myth that Mix likes to deflate is the American belief that “all exercise is good for us” and that a life spent conditioning and training for sport will spell continued health. Not true for the pro. It’s a myth that victimizes athletes the most. They “figure that once they stop playing, the pain will go away,” he says. “But it doesn’t. Degenerative arthritis is progressive. Many of them are surprised when they take a few months off, do nothing, and then feel worse.”
Talk About Feeling Worse
The ongoing effects of wear and tear in the NFL have certainly surprised former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Todd Washington. Though he’s employed as the offensive coordinator with the University of San Diego football program, Washington’s retirement involves much more than simple nostalgia for a career that culminated in a Super Bowl ring. He’s still amazed that he survived eight years as an NFL lineman, where, as one savvy observer put it, every time the ball is snapped, the collision of opposing players is no different from a car crash.
In August, Washington took time out to speak with me just before opening camp for the Toreros. He’s still a big guy, not quite the 317 pounds of his playing days. Once with hair, now without, Washington played from 1998 to 2005. He spent his last three seasons with the Houston Texans. He retired during training camp with the Cleveland Browns in 2006. His first five years (1998–2003) came with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was on the 2002 team that beat the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. Local fans recall that game, played at Qualcomm Stadium, January 26, 2003, when the Bucs collared the Raiders, 48–21.
Prior to the NFL, Washington graduated from Virginia Tech. “I can honestly say that the NFL was a secondary thing for me. My father coached me in high school; teaching and coaching is what I’ve been around all my life. Everything I did during my career at Virginia Tech was geared toward becoming a coach when I graduated.” He knew, going in, that his career would be temporary. Eventually he’d coach college. But not before he suffered major body blows in the NFL.
Washington played some of the game’s toughest positions. Even in the second person, he’s blunt: “Once you start playing in the NFL, your body will never be the same.” His position was offensive lineman, guard and center, and he defended on kickoffs. As a lineman, he crouched down, stood up with the snap, backed up or ran slants, blocked the defense’s charge, all to protect his quarterback and running back.
After five years, he discovered that what had taken him 30 minutes as a young player — dressing for practice and getting his ankles taped — took him two or three times as long. The agility of youth is first to flee. By 2000, “I’m in the training room, stretching, getting massages and heat packs, just to loosen up so I can practice for two and a half hours.” In 2006, at 30, he had just agreed to a contract with the Browns, even though he was pushing the age limit for linemen. After one week of practice, he realized that “I can’t move anybody; on pass protection, I can’t redirect fast enough; running drills and conditioning after practice, I’m the last to finish. That wasn’t the case when I first got to the NFL.” He called his wife and said, “Honey, I’m done.” Then he told the coach: to continue playing at his diminished level would diminish the team’s strength.
For most players, whether they stay the three- or four-year average or they stay longer, as Washington did, wear and tear spells the end. Though he “was blessed” not to have a concussion, he did suffer the typical lineman injuries: sore knees, neck, and shoulders. One position Washington played was blocker for the kickoff return team. Once the kick was in the air, he and three or four other linemen would form a barrier, or wedge. They would block for the kick returner, racing like a Humvee up the field. A 300-pounder, Washington would get “hit by 250-, 260-pound linebackers, coming full speed, headfirst.” (One linebacker described the collision as running all out for 50 yards and smashing into a garage door.) “Concussions were very, very common,” Washington says. “The joke we used to tell in the NFL was, ‘I came in at 6′ 4″, now I’m at 6′ 2.”’ ”
Beginning in 2009, the NFL banned the wedge because of the number of helmet-to-helmet hits that resulted in head trauma. The astonishing statistic for pro football is that there are 5 injuries for every 100 regular plays and 7 for every 100 kick plays; there are many more of the former than the latter. “Unfortunately,” the ban “didn’t happen when I was playing,” Washington says. “Still,” he notes without any bravura, “I did it for eight years.”
(Two years ago, the NFL instituted concussion guidelines. The rules include a neurological baseline test; a policy that instructs coaches that a trainer’s or doctor’s medical decision overrides any competitive consideration; and a whistle-blower system so men can report medical problems anonymously without fear of jeopardizing their careers. The big problem for ex–football players with concussions is depression: according to the American College of Sports Medicine, those with three or more concussions are three times more likely to have depression than those who don’t suffer head trauma.)
Though Washington so far has no symptoms of memory loss or confusion, he says he has seen former teammates “struggle with later effects of head injuries. They’re forgetting things, taking longer to do things, or starting to feel weird.” He says “some doctors,” those who diagnose these injuries, “are not educated about what NFL players go through.” Washington knows guys who are “depressed and have stopped being active. For some of these guys, it’s too late.”
The Virginia native is paying a price for his years of bone-rattling contact. His biggest problem (and the reason he has filed a workers’ compensation claim with Ron Mix) is that at 33 he has degenerative arthritis. Arthritic pain and tightness trouble his neck, wrists, abdomen, fingers, and knees. He wakes up stiff, and it takes him a long time to loosen up. “Things hurt where they’re not supposed to hurt. You can be sitting down and turn your head one way or the other, and you’ll have a sharp pain in your neck.”
Worse, it’s compromised his ability to coach.
“I really take pride in being a hands-on coach. I’ve had coaches in my life who were hands-on. They were actually able to show me how things were done. I’m trying to show the same things to my players, but I have to be careful because I can’t do those things anymore. I can’t run like I used to run. I can’t bend down in the stance. I can’t bend my knees the way I feel comfortable. All these things take their toll. I have to find alternative ways of coaching — whether it’s by words, by video, by diagrams, by handouts. I can’t be hands-on.”
Washington tells me that he hasn’t sought treatment for his arthritis yet, but he does stretch more and uses heat pads. “If it flares up real bad, I’ll rest. I know I’ll seek medical attention in 10 or 15 years. Hopefully, by then, there’s some procedure or treatment that will get the job done.”
Like many players I speak with, blame doesn’t enter his vocabulary. Injury, he says, “is something I have to learn to live with.” He adds that he’s often been asked — and he’s asked himself — would he do it again? “Injuries or not, I’d definitely do it again.”
His experience brings clarity about the pro’s conundrum. “It’s hard to beat running out on the field on game day. Your adrenaline kicks in, and you feel perfectly fine. But as soon as it’s over, your body is back to where it was, and whatever injury you have, it’s worse.”
A Much Deeper Issue
Perhaps the most telling tribute I read in the wake of the death of Steve McNair, a victim of a murder-suicide last July in Nashville, came from his former teammate, Tennessee Titan running back Eddie George. A married man, McNair had purportedly been seeing the woman who shot him. For George, McNair’s end was by no means his friend’s story or legacy. How to explain his murder? The Titan quarterback was lost after retiring from the game he played with such passion.
“I just know from experience,” George said, “that when you’re used to doing something for so long that you love to do, how do you fill that void? You’re in search of something. Most players may go back to things they used to know. They may revert back to drugs, divorce rates go up, obesity. You’re looking for something comforting. For Steve, it was uncharacteristic for him to be out there with this young lady like that. However, he was in search for something. So there’s a much deeper issue here than just Steve and extramarital affairs.”
That deeper issue is summed up by former San Diego State and St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk. “I played 12 years” in the NFL, Faulk told theUnion-Tribune. “You think it’s forever — it’s a blip. You have to find something to do. You’re kind of lost. I was paid to play football, and now I’m paid to talk football. Are you kidding me?”
How Bad Is It?
One of the ex-player’s core problems stems from money, its lack or its misappropriation. Retired players from the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball are “suffering a financial epidemic,” says a recent article in Sports Illustrated. Seventy-eight percent of former NFL players after two years of retirement have significant debt or are facing bankruptcy. Sixty percent of NBA players, five years into retirement, are broke. Joblessness and ongoing medical bills accelerate debt. One near-certain consequence is divorce. Most estimates put the divorce rate for ex-athletes at between 60 and 80 percent.
An explanation for this trend comes from Matt Birk. A veteran offensive lineman, now with the Baltimore Ravens, Birk writes in a July column for Sports Illustrated that many “former players live in physical and mental pain because of injuries suffered while playing — some with symptoms that didn’t manifest until long after their NFL career.” Birk says their savings are exhausted, they can’t find work because of their injuries, they can’t get health care since they have preexisting conditions, and few are getting disability through the league. “I have seen these guys with my own eyes and heard their stories with my own ears. You might not read about this very often, but this problem is real.”
Birk points the broken finger at the NFL Players Association. Team owners, he says, pay a percentage of revenues to the players, and retired players get only 2 percent of that. “The NFLPA wants the money to go to current players because football salaries already lag behind their baseball and basketball counterparts.” Since it was the old players who built the sport to its stratospheric level — by securing such things as “free agency, top-notch medical treatment [for active players], and million-dollar contracts” — he wants current players to shoulder more responsibility for the health of their forebears.
How do players and ex-players lose their money? According to Sports Illustrated,they buy too much risky real estate. They avoid financial planning. They hire unqualified relatives to manage their investments, with disastrous results. They seldom know when to say no to those long-lost friends and their surefire schemes, such as opening a restaurant with their name in lights. They pay the nightclub bills of their entourage. They overspend on frivolous stuff like sport-utility vehicles, private jets, Rolex watches. (NBA guard Kenny Anderson blew $10,000 a month on “hanging out,” lost the $60 million he’d made as a player, and filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005.)
Relationship trouble accompanies the money woes, ex-players and sports psychologists tell me. Players often marry their hometown sweethearts at an early age. Being away half the year, players depend on their wives to do everything with bills, kids, and home, which can lead to resentment in both spouses. Players succumb to the easy availability of women, some of whom, hoping to get pregnant or secure a free ride, want a tryst with any high-profile player. Players father kids whom they can’t support. In postcareer divorces, it’s not uncommon for a player to lose half his fortune to an ex-wife, a girlfriend, and the mother of a child, who are sometimes three different women. Apparently the record is held by former NFL running back Travis Henry, who has fathered 11 children by 10 women. The estimate of his yearly child-support payments is $170,000, his lawyer says he’s broke, and he’s just been sentenced to three years in prison on a charge of trafficking cocaine.
Though conditions may be worsening for ex-players, they are not alone. People like Ron Mix are helping. Whether it’s former players, coaches, or the sports consultant and psychologist, caring people abound for the lost, divorced, depressed, and broke ex-pro.
To the NBA and Back
I’m sitting on bleachers in the Temecula Community Recreation Center, watching former “NBA legend,” as the flyer describes him, Lamond Murray hold a basketball camp. The sounds of the thumping ball, the ringing metal hoop, echo in the high-windowed gym. For more than an hour, Murray’s been running drills and barking orders (“Push it! Push it!”). Now it’s game time. The kids, aged 10 to 16, girls and boys, are impossibly mismatched: midgets versus giants. Towering over all is 6′ 7″ Murray. Though retired, he’s still agile at 36. Game on, I notice right off how every player has his/her NBA moves down pat — the no-look pass, the hand slaps after a foul shot, even the Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. A dream come true, a few get Murray’s behind-the-back pass. “Shoot!” he yells.
In 1994, the Los Angeles Clippers — ten years after the franchise abandoned fair-weather San Diego — drafted Murray, the seventh pick in the first round. They signed him to a five-year, $13.5 million contract. After he bounced around the league for 12 years, he returned to the Clippers briefly in 2006. Twelve intensely rewarding years as an NBA player, he tells me after camp. So why retire? “It wasn’t my choice,” he says. “When the Clippers let me go, I couldn’t get a job anywhere playing ball. I wasn’t injured. In my mind, I could still play, contribute. My body was maturing. I was a lot smarter. I had better tempo to my game. Everything was a lot easier. The older you get, the easier the game becomes.
“But I guess they wanted younger talent. Once you have over ten years in the NBA, they have to pay you a certain amount of money. They’d rather cut costs because most guys at our age aren’t going to be contributing. Unless you’re a Shaquille O’Neal, who’s a future Hall of Famer,” they’re not interested. “Thirty-five is like a cutoff point.”
I ask Murray, who sports a dapper mustache and well-trimmed goatee, if he prepared himself in college (he played three seasons at Cal) for life after sport. He says he figured, if he went pro, he could always come back to school. He also figured he’d need to earn the money to finish school. Yet it never occurred to him that he could finish college during his career on the court.
While playing, did he think about retiring? “As an athlete,” he says, “you never really want to think about that.” Instead, “Your life begins and ends with ‘Am I starting tonight? How many minutes am I going to play? Will I get my 20 points?’ That’s all you worry about. People in your family tell you, ‘That’s all you need to worry about.’ ” Guys would “never talk about it,” he says. They’d only talk about investments that would help them in their “transition out of basketball.” But think about it? Not with practice and games and travel. “Never. It was never an issue.”
But, he says, things change. “It doesn’t hit you until you’re out of the game a couple years. Your routine is changed. You’re at home. You don’t have that camaraderie with your teammates.” Leaving was “a shock.” He was used to working out every day. Besides, he’d never been cut from anything. He played at high levels in high school and college. But over time, he says, players “get caught in the shuffle” of management, new coaches, new systems, player trades. Eventually, Murray left Los Angeles, then went to Cleveland, Toronto, New Jersey (his wife and children following him every step of the way).
The hardest part for Murray was losing the structure that basketball gave him. “Practice, team meals, meetings, games. Being a player. Having a role, something I could look forward to when I got up in the morning.” When he retired, he says, “Now what do I do? You get depressed really quick. There’s nothing to do. Even my kids have to go to school.” Speaking of which, Murray at last was a part of his kids’ lives. That took getting used to, “driving them to school, going to school functions.”
It takes a year or two to make the adjustment, he says. It takes longer for “guys without kids or a stable family. They want to go right back into coaching because that’s all they know. ‘I want to be on the bus. I want to be around the guys.’ But everybody can’t coach. There’s only so many jobs out there.” Murray, surprising me, compares the player to an alcoholic. “You’ve done something for so many years, and you have other ‘alcoholics’ you deal with, and suddenly that’s taken away, you have no one who’s at the same level as you. Who do you talk to? Guys lose it. They want to kill themselves, self-sabotage with drinking, drugs, food. I’ve seen a lot of retired ballplayers who blow up to 300 or 400 pounds because they just sit on a couch.”
As a young player, Murray was bored, chin in palm, whenever the NBA threw programs at him about managing his life or saving his money. The lightbulb went on when he watched a few teammates, journeymen players, paying serious attention. He realized that he should have been listening so that at retirement he’d be ready. During his four preseason games with the Clippers in 2006, “I could feel something changing in me,” he recalls. That was incandescent, a realization that has led him to want to help other players avoid going through what he did.
Murray’s goal, once he finishes his degree in sports psychology, is to become a paid staffer in an NBA organization as head of player relations, helping rookies transition into the league, teaching them things that “their parents, their agents, their teams are not going to tell them.” The main thing players don’t know, he says, is that pro ball is a business. No one told him that his name is a brand, that his behavior could affect his brand, that he needed to protect his image. Too, teams don’t tell players enough about the “day-to-day grind. Social issues. How to deal with women. How to deal with other players. How players are different from each other. That’s the new frontier. The NBA does everything for you physically. But there’s not enough to help you mentally.” In short, players, both active and retired, need mentors. He cites Sam Perkins, who runs a mentorship program with the Indiana Pacers and is now their vice president for player relations. Murray hopes to be one of those mentors because “I’m living proof there’s life after the game.”
A Degree in Sports Psychology
Lamond Murray is one of dozens of ex-players who have studied psychology with Dr. Cristina Versari, a Brazilian who founded and directs the San Diego University for Integrative Studies. For the past 20 years, she has made it her business to study the psychology of pro athletes. “No one else is doing this,” she tells me in her Old Town office. “That’s why I started this school.” Part of the school’s mission is to train a new generation of sports psychologists who will answer this question: Why is the transition to a second life so hard?
In 1989, Versari was hired by the National Basketball Association to counsel its players. The youthful-looking former swimmer says that, before her, no one helped athletes prepare for a second career, a different lifestyle, or a college degree. “During their active career, they have small problems,” she says. “They have a lot of people taking care of them: trainers, massage therapists, managers. Once they retire, everything is taken from them overnight. The structure that kept them together is gone. That’s when they really have problems.”
Retired players, she says, typically move back to their hometowns, and they lose contact with the organizations and team. The active players don’t have any contact with retired players. “It’s a strange dynamic,” she says. “Overnight, people who used to call stop calling.” Players find themselves suddenly friendless. They have no support system. Since most have played for several teams, they and their families have been uprooted often, which adds to the isolation in retirement. “There’s nothing outside of sport that makes them feel the way they’re feeling when they’re playing. Nothing.”
As a way to understand the psychology of basketball players, Versari uses the Myers-Briggs personality assessment test. She has found, by studying more than 1000 players, that basketball players are predominantly introverts. They are sensing types who focus on the present and on concrete information. They are analytic thinkers and have an organized approach to life. She uses this data to help coaches and players understand who they are as players but more importantly how their personality traits might be harnessed for a second career. (She has studied 22 sports and found that basketball and baseball players are alike, while swimmers and wrestlers are extroverted, intuitive, and sensitive. Because of the many different positions in football, tests on players as to their personality type are so far inconclusive.)
During two long stints with the NBA, the last ending five years ago, Versari has found that almost every current player has “one focus — to stay.” In 2009, the NBA drafted 60 players. According to Versari, after the first season, typically half of those drafted are gone. “They are cut, and we don’t even notice. Their careers are over.” A few go to Europe, but not many. These young men have spent half their lives preparing for a career, “and it only lasts one season.”
She understands why most players are “in denial about their future. They have to focus on staying.” This gives birth to the rampant NBA fantasy: “I’m going to play one more year.” Active players always think they’ve got one more year to play, even if they don’t have a contract.
When the career is ending (the average stay in the NBA is a bit more than five years), “I get the phone call. They’ve been cut. They’ve been injured. They’ve been traded. They get a cold, and being sick makes them think, ‘What am I going to do if I can’t play anymore?’ That’s when they call me. When they’re ready. They’re not in denial anymore.”
Though many ex–NBA players go back to college and finish their degree, they don’t do it for the money. “They do it,” she says, “because they have promised their mothers.” Some NBA players, who haven’t blown their stash, don’t need a degree because they don’t need a career. It makes no sense for a player making $20 million a year “to go to college and graduate three years later so he can make $40,000 a year.” Instead, they have promised Mom because Mom has insisted that they get a degree when their sports lives are over. Hanging the diploma on the wall means Mom beams and the kids are motivated to take school seriously.
Retiring players face a fast adjustment with their wives. Versari compares an NBA wife to a military spouse, keeping the home fires burning while the husband/boyfriend is away. During the player’s career, his wife has managed everything: children and school, the home environment, holidays and parties, finances, the sudden move prompted by a trade. For her part, the wife can lose interest in the man when he becomes a “nobody at home,” Versari says.
But the major problem is depression. “Without exception, they all go through it.” The adjustment takes four to eight years. “They eat more. They eat less. They sleep more or they can’t sleep. It’s a very long process.” Most don’t know they’re depressed, she says. They think they are alone: their friendship circle or network of support has dwindled so much they become frightened by their isolation and loneliness. They feel estranged from the game, from wives, from children they don’t really know. It’s rare for former NBA players to go into therapy. They’ll only go, Versari says, if “someone else [in the family] needs help. A son or a daughter.”
The psychological profile Versari is now working with she calls ADD: athlete development deficiency. “Players do not develop other parts of themselves.” She describes the teenage Kobe Bryant, a megastar with the Los Angeles Lakers the past ten years. He “spent every Saturday at home” as a teenager, “watching videotapes of basketball games.” He didn’t develop social skills; he didn’t develop his ego. He ate, slept, and dreamed basketball. “When players retire, they have to go back and build those other parts of themselves, parts that are missing and were never developed. It’s developmental arrest. The same thing happens to people on alcohol and drugs.”
The Paradox of Awareness
What’s curious about Marc Sagal, a professional soccer player turned sports psychologist and consultant, is how he balances his knowledge of the athlete’s mind with an honesty about his own. Over lunch, he tells me right off, his fingers poised above a chunk of salmon, that his message to clients is that he can help them “perform more effectively under pressure.” He and two partners at Winning Mind counsel 50 clients. Be it in business (corporate executives), military (Navy SEALs), or sports (pros from around the world), we “understand the psychological characteristics that successful people need to have to stay focused and remain calm in pressure situations.”
Sagal’s journey to consultant began with his career in soccer: “I was one of the first American soccer players to play professionally overseas.” After college (a Phi Beta Kappa in philosophy at Colorado College), he played for a team in Sweden. Of Sweden’s many leagues, Sagal was in a “mid-tier” league, “down a notch or two from the top.” Though he never reached the fame and fortune of the top, he did three years as a pro. But barely. His career was shortened, or better, compromised, by an injury he had even before he got to Sweden.
In his last game in college in 1989, he was hit from the side and suffered a meniscal tear in his knee. Though he “played hurt” the rest of the game (he doesn’t remember if anyone told him not to), it was a moment “I’ll never forget.” (I prod Sagal about the injury; at one point he laughs and says, “You’re making me relive something I don’t want to.”) Sagal thinks that he didn’t realize the severity of what had happened. In fact, he would not have realized it as long as he had an opportunity to play. The injury might have been worsened by his playing that day. He’s not sure. He’s had several operations, and part of the meniscus has been cut out, a procedure that’s not recommended nowadays.
Off-season, “I pushed myself to get playing again. When you’re young, you don’t think about the consequences of real proper recovery.” He rehabbed the knee, went to Sweden, and was on the field every other day. “The coaches and other players were aware I was managing the pain,” he recalls. “Honestly, I think I played hurt every single time I went on the field.”
I ask Sagal whether he uses his experience to help his clients. Not much, he says. “It’s funny, but when I thought about talking to you, I didn’t include myself.” And yet here he is, the consummate wounded warrior and, so common in our sports-obsessed age, the wounded healer. Advising others in whom he sees himself.
What does he see? For the injured player, it’s a combination of several things: competitiveness — “They want to get back on the field as soon as possible because that’s what they love to do”; “aggressiveness,” a macho thing; and “immaturity.” Add to that a medical staff that “knows what an acceptable amount of pushing [the injury] is.” But here the athlete takes the blame. He will downplay pain to get back in the game. Doctors and trainers, Sagal says, must give the okay, but too often they are roped in by the athlete’s avidity, a horse who just wants to run, bum leg or not.
In college Sagal had terrific medical care, but he also had enough “freedom to push my irresponsibility more than I should have.” The dilemma is, when to put the reins on an athlete whose greatest asset is his native aggressiveness, which, though it may have got him injured and contributes to an inadequate recovery, also drives him to win.
Reviewing his MRIs with orthopedic surgeons, Sagal realized that “there was nothing to be done.” His doctors were “surprised I could even play.” Since leaving the sport, he’s had two more surgeries. He can no longer run, and he can barely walk. He’s a candidate for knee-replacement surgery. His story is not uncommon. He thinks that about one-third of soccer players have “some kind of injury they’re managing.” Depending on the psychology of the athletes and their awareness, “Some guys can just put it out of their mind, while others are constantly aware of the difficulty.” In that spectrum, Sagal says he was one of those “unfortunately aware of my injury.” He was constantly thinking, “How am I feeling? Am I okay?” But that awareness, though it did begin to impact his playing, also got him to listen to his body and to realize that he should hang it up.
It’s paradoxical, Sagal says, for an athlete to have an “intellectual orientation” because it goes against his training, which tells him not to think but to lose himself in the sport or activity. That “desire to solve problems,” in the midst of the game, is what gets you into trouble.
To help athletes think about themselves as people and not about themselves as performers — that’s the hardest part, he says.
When Is It Time?
Another consultant at Winning Mind is Geoff Miller. At 35, Miller has been a “mental skills” coach for five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Miller lives in San Diego but is on the road constantly, traveling with the Pirates and their eight minor-league teams, spring, summer, and fall. Anyone who knows Pirate baseball knows that the team must rely on its young players because it doesn’t have the money to buy expensive players. A lot like the Padres.
Miller, in his knit shirt and khaki pants, accentuates the positive. Over iced tea, he refrains from using the term “psychological,” for it connotes a problem. He employs the word “mental” to focus on learned behaviors: “Mental is, do I know what to do, and can I do it when it counts?” The applications on the diamond are many. One weapon in the arsenal of mental skills is to get young hitters to understand “what is happening when they’re failing.” Failure might be defined as follows: say a kid from Rancho Bernardo hits .490 in high school, then hits .260 in the minors; he hears from his coaches, “That’s a good average.” How’s he supposed to respond? The pros are typically a comedown from high school or college glory, so players must learn how their performance is valued and adjust accordingly.
The way to get players to “redefine failure” is to get them to focus on the bigger picture: to think life more than career, career more than season, and a season more than an at-bat. “I give them a process. It’s a transformation from seeking the results you want to seeking a process that will bring you the results.”
This process orientation is key to career- and life-building, says Miller. It’s inevitable that a successful ballplayer, whether or not he makes it to the “bigs,” will begin to think about his life after baseball, to ask the question, “When is it time?” (The average career for the major leaguer is a tad under five years.) This is important because even though the minor leagues have room for an awful lot of players (some 1500 are drafted every year), very few get to the majors. One estimate is that only 10 percent of players who sign a minor-league contract play one game in Major League Baseball. So, for our kid from Rancho Bernardo, the career that he aspired to and worked so hard at from Little League to PONY league, from high school to college, from the minors to the majors, will most likely be over when he reaches 27.
Five factors compel ballplayers to start the transition.
Pay: during a player’s first contract season, according to the Minor League Baseball website, he makes $1100 a month.
School: to coach baseball in college or high school requires a degree.
Options: players, whose discipline is a plus for any employer, get offers from businesspeople to move on.
Calling: Miller says there’s a lot of Christianity in baseball; at times, players feel called by God to stop playing and go in a new direction.
Women: ballplayers are hit on a lot by women, who make themselves available not for the money but to hitch themselves to a future star (remember Bull Durham?). Leaving baseball allows the player to find the right person who’ll love him for more than his fielding ability.
It drives Miller bonkers to hear about prima donnas like Alex Rodriguez or Manny Ramirez, high-maintenance celebrity hitters who’ve both admitted to using steroids. His experience has been with players who are just the opposite: “Most professional athletes are responsible, they care, they live good lives, and they end up getting lumped in with guys who make headlines.”
One of those good guys, who’s been counseled by Miller, is Dan Schwartzbauer. Schwartzbauer retired from professional baseball two years ago at 25. When he made his intention to retire known, his coaches and fellow players all said, “What, are you crazy?” Even his father, who came to every game it seemed, was “disappointed.” Only Miller helped him know “when it was time.” Schwartzbauer had played ball since he was 7. In college, he studied finance and investment management but kept his eye on the prize — baseball every day, even indoor practice sessions during winters. At 21, he entered A ball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. One team he played with was the Hickory Crawdads in Hickory, North Carolina. In 2007, he learned, just as spring training was breaking, that his hoped-for move to a second-base opening in AA ball had fallen through: a major leaguer was sent down to AAA, and the AAA player who was sent to AA got Schwartzbauer’s slot. He was devastated.
It occurred to him that he had spent his baseball life never thinking about his postcareer. “There was no room mentally for me not to think about baseball.” When Schwartzbauer announced his retirement to his manager, the man said, “What in the world are you going to do?” Schwartzbauer replied, “I don’t know. I guess I’ll go get a job.”
Even now, Schwartzbauer still gets calls to play with semipro teams. And, he says, “I don’t have a good reason why I don’t want to do it.” In our long conversation, he sounds as if he’s struggling to let go as much as the sport won’t let him go — when teams, coaches, and former players keep hounding him: why did you dump the dream? His business degree, something that most of the guys he played with do not have, cushioned his leaving.
But most guys, he says, take a long time to hang it up, some barnstorming well into their 30s. For his teammates, playing ball “may not be something they know they’re going to do forever, but they don’t know what else to do.” They get to the point where they cannot face that “it won’t work,” so they end up doing “whatever it takes” to stay.
In a culture that billboards the idea that everyone should pursue a dream, Schwartzbauer says he gave little thought to a second career. Why think about something he didn’t want to do when he was spending most days doing exactly what he wanted to do?
Today, Schwartzbauer knows what else to do. He sells orthopedic medical supplies.
“I Blew Out My Knee”
That’s how James Grossman pinpoints his sudden leap from jock to what he calls “human being,” recalling the blow that ended his four-year minor-league baseball career. “Today, that’s a six-month rehab. At the time,” 20 years ago, “it was 2 years,” to which he said no thanks. Still, that wasn’t what spurred his interest in helping ex-athletes, which he does now with his consulting firm Legacy Sports. Playing football at the University of Arizona, Grossman tells me, he had a 6′ 9″, 255-pound roommate who bought the “false mythology” of being an athlete forever “who sacrifices everything to get there. There were 110 lockers in that locker room, and even the 110th guy thought that he would have a career in the NFL if he could show everyone what he was capable of doing.” (Of the 9000 college-level players, only 215 get chosen for the NFL each year.) Consequently, for most of these guys, Grossman says, education was “secondary.”
After Grossman’s stint in minor-league baseball, he worked with basketball coach John Thompson of Georgetown University, who started aiding ex-players. Later, Grossman helped implement the National Hockey League’s Life After Hockey program. Over time, his advocacy has been met with opposition. One lockstep thought is prevalent: throwing money at players “will cure their problems. In reality, money brings a different set of problems, and money brings a certain leverage to those problems that makes them larger.” More money for guys who don’t know how to manage money “is inappropriate.”
Grossman argues with league authorities that players “are not commodities” but should be seen in terms “of their humanity.” His voice rises testily, and he tells me that he “has to apologize; there’s a lot of water behind the dam.” League authorities say, in reply, that “we’re in a business, we pay them a lot of money, and that’s our exchange value.” Grossman eventually realized a “commodity” approach to the problem: he tells the bosses that by not taking care “of their athletes” after retirement and by not providing them options, their brand will suffer. That gets them to listen.
Few I interview have Grossman’s insight. “I would argue that the greatest challenge of the athlete’s life is the day he realizes he can’t be an athlete anymore. Here’s the challenge: first, very few people in this world identify a dream to pursue; second, have the opportunity to pursue it; third, realize that dream; and fourth, are confronted with the task of now having to replace it. That is monumental.”
In short, it is near impossible for an ex-athlete to find a calling that will summon him the way his pro career did.
Still young in his 40s, Grossman is searching for how to respond to the conundrums ex-athletes face. He says he knows guys in their 50s and 60s who “are still lost.” One described retirement like this: I was riding in a car down the freeway, and someone just threw me out the door. “The blessing is, to have lived a life filled with passion is extraordinary,” says Grossman. “But the curse is, when it’s gone, you understand what it was like to live with passion — and you can’t go back.”