For many becoming an ex-player in any sport is a very hard thing to come to terms with. Former Olympic swimming Gold medallist Neil Brooks wrote an excellent piece on this subject that was published on the WA Today website, entitled “Keeping Sports stars off the scrapheap of Life.”
The warning signs have been there for a long time. David Frith wrote a fascinating book, “Silence of the Heart” trying to explain why cricket has in every country where Test cricket is played, a higher suicide rate amongst ex players than the national average.
Brooks raises some very pertinent points, and shows how sport has changed dramatically. “I think most of us realise that professional sport is big business and if we are truly honest, the players and competitors, for the better part, are nothing more than interchangeable replaceable components of a machine driven by ratings points, sponsorship dollars and power brokers who in many cases have never swum a stroke, laced up a boot, swung a bat or made a free throw,” he wrote.
Never was a truer word written, but one has to question whether clubs have a duty of care to their players and how long that duty of care lasts. In the USA and Canada there is a duty of care when it comes to injuries, and some players have successfully sued clubs for financial compensation for their careers being shortened by a club rushing them back into a team before an injury has healed properly; the reason being they needed that player out there to make a final, or win a crucial game to keep the finances clicking in.
We talk of how our servicemen are broken down and re-built into skilled men and women who can react and defend our nation and its people, yet when they leave the forces they are not, for want of a better a word, “re-programmed” to enter the civilian world; some, as has been very clear, struggle to make that adjustment, especially those who have been forced out of the services due to injury.
Sport is never going to be the same as a military situation, but there are comparisons. Sportsmen live a very different life in many cases to the rest of us. Their careers are short so, in many cases the rewards are high. Sometimes the price paid physically for those rewards is equally high, with innumerable operations at an age twenty or thirty years before most non-athletes, as well as a life on painkillers to combat arthritis.
Coupled with that is dealing with the fact that in many cases they have to find a new career, and that the spotlight has shifted and they are no longer a star. As Brooks highlights, this is a major problem to many. “I have seen first hand when you have a certain skill set that is considered to be rare, speed that is not deemed to be normal for the species and are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, then more often than not indiscretions off the field, in the pool or on the court are often have a blind eye turned to them and there is no shame in covering things up if it means keeping the talent on the paddock, playing the game and securing the points and lifting the silverware.” For many athletes that lack of protection post career leaves them extremely vulnerable and exposed, yet had they been punished for their indiscretions like a normal citizen, or told that they were not acceptable, that transition to a normal life would have been made easier.
Jobs for ex sports stars are not easy to come by. There are only so many coaching opportunities at the highest level, and not all are cut out for that. There are more at a lower level but the pay and the profile you have is a long way down from where these players have been used to, many feel it is beneath them. As for the media, some are fortunate to pick up media work; some get work even though they lack the skills set. It was the late George Gruljusich who bemoaned the fact that many an ex player was thrown on television and radio without serving an apprenticeship, and learning their trade. In sport it would never happen so why does it in the media?
In fact Ian Chappell who uses his knowledge of the game to predict what will happen rather than telling viewers what has happened, is frank and honest when he says in his book Chappelli:Life Larrikins & Cricket, “the only way to be any good and have a long career as a commentator is to treat it as a real job.” He continues by saying “Being an ex captain gives you some leeway. People like to hear what the past captain thinks and also to gain some insights into the team. For the ex-captain, this is a handy period. It gives you time to grow into the job, but once the honeymoon is over you then survive purely on ability.” How true this is, listen to the English Premier League experts and very few are the big name players. The best are the players who were never in the limelight, often players who worked hard to keep their place at the top and were students of the game. The truly gifted players rarely make the transition from player to commentator.
The question is should clubs and managers do more for their players? If they step out of line should they take the appropriate action and not cover up the misdemeanour? Should they help players obtain a skill and teach them how to manage their inflated incomes so that they have some money left over when they are finally discarded? It all comes down to that issue of a duty of care.
Ultimately clubs cannot be responsible for the actions of individuals, but if they are going to select young players and bring them into their club as teenagers then they should take on some responsibility in their grooming and education, its called in loco parentis.
A literal translation is “in the place of a parent” and this is a legal term that refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. One area that it applies is in allowing institutions such as colleges and schools to act in the best interests of the students as they see fit, although not allowing what would be considered violations of the students’ civil liberties. There is no reason why a sporting organisation should not be held responsible in the same way as a school or college.
As Brooks continued in his article when talking about indiscretions off the field, “The problem is, this kind of behaviour becomes the norm to a young athlete and they develop a mentality that as long as they race well, play well and win at all costs then what happens off the field doesn’t really matter because someone will be there to pick up the pieces, sweep it under the carpet and make things right – but of course it does matter.”
It is definitely a two-edged sword. Young athletes have to realise that their time at the top is fleeting, and that one day it will come to an end. They also have to realise that that fame and recognition will diminish as the years go by. The game does not owe them a thing, as the game has rewarded them with the trappings that go with being a sports star for however long they managed to stay in the limelight. However the clubs can help their cause with a little more honesty, a little more governance and a little more responsibility. After all these are people that you are dealing with, not commodities. Far too many big sporting organisations have forgotten that fact. These people hurt, bleed and cry like the rest of us.
Hopefully with athletes like Neil Brooks, who have been at the top and fallen from that great height, speaking out, people will realise that some onus must be placed on those who earn off the back of these athletes, their managers and the clubs they serve. These people need to ensure that when the athlete can no longer run, and has to retire, they have prepared them for rejoining normal society as best they can. Rather than what is happening now the door closes behind them and the clubs and managers forget all about them as the next generations are coming through, and leave them to fend for themselves. Sadly some teenage prodigies struggle to cope in a world that is totally alien to them.