Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Second Acts in American Lives

An athlete retires. If they were great, there are three ways it plays out. Either they step out not too far past the height of their powers (Michael Jordan the first couple times, Barry Sanders), they play out the string until they are a shell of what they were, but still good enough to get a spot on the court1 (Michael Jordan the last time, Craig Biggio), or they get injured badly enough that they can’t or won’t carry on (Barbaro, not Darius Miles). But what if they were one, or even several tiers down from the top? I suppose they theoretically have the same three options on how things end, but if you’re a marginal talent, the distance between the first two is greatly compressed, and whichever way you go, Doug Glanville points out2 that your choice/the situation thrust upon you is met with deafening indifference.
1: I pretty much always have mixed feelings here. It's always sad to see a man diminished, but there's something raw and human in not being able to quit, in loving the sport and moments of glory more than you love your reputation.
2: It makes sense that Glanville would end up writing in the New York Times. The man couldn't hit, but he always could think.
The sport moves on, the world doesn’t even notice, but the man who was that athlete is there, staring at the rest of a life. You’re roughly 30, in most cases, and have spent the bulk of your life training, preparing to play, playing and recovering from one single pursuit. If you went to college, you probably majored in some combination of your sport, partying and avoiding academic ineligibility. Of all the skills you’ve spent years developing, the only one applicable to a life outside the walls of your old kingdom is that you might be good in front of a camera.

Money is probably also a problem, or at least a nuisance. If you’re not a star, you probably weren’t raking in millions in sponsorship dough, and your salary, though high in almost any real terms, probably didn’t get salted away for this eventuality.3 Even if you do have enough in the bank to be comfortably middle class for the next four/five decades, I think that’s rather anathema to most of the athlete mindset. I’m strongly of the opinion that you have to be borderline pathologically competitive to make it as a pro, barring some sort of obscene physical skillset. A life of idle, average ease probably won’t satisfy the psychology that made you.4
3: If you haven't read it, go see this Sports Illustrated article on the finances of retired players. The short (staggering) version is that within two year of retiring, 78% of NFL athletes are functionally broke, while within five years 60% of NBA players are, but the whole article is worth a look.
4: Also worth a look is this article about the unraveling web of lies that is Lenny Dykstra's financial empire. So much for the days Nails was giving stock tips on the internet...
So this is where we end up. You put on that suit, you fake the smile, you press the flesh and try to make deals. You are Doug Mirabelli, former backup catcher, Michigan realtor.

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