THE THRILL OF VICTORY,THE AGONY OF RETIREMENT
If you're looking for a real tear-jerker, rent Everybody's All-American, a film about a football player after the glory fades. Golden boy Gavin is showered with adulation following a Sugar Bowl triumph, but his pro career is cut short by injury, and it's downhill from there. A restaurant deal sours after his partner gambles away the investment. Gavin tries a football comeback and fails. Mounting financial troubles drive him and his wife to drink. Finally, a bloated and bewildered Gavin is reduced to working as a spokesman for an artificial-turf maker, regaling clients with tales of gridiron days gone by.
Tragic? Maybe to Hollywood. But in the real world, Gavin might be one of the luckier ones. After all, he still had a job--and a college degree, a house, his health, and only one set of children to support. Sure, there are some impressive post-sports careers: Basketball Hall of Famer Dave Bing is president of Bing Steel Inc., a wholesaler to the auto industry. Former quarterback Fran Tarkenton heads KnowledgeWare Inc., a thriving software house. Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp wield considerable power in Washington.
But such success stories are unusual. Despite salaries now fatter than those of many CEOs, money troubles are common--and so are shady or inept agents and money managers. Alcohol and drugs bring down many a player. Divorce is virtually the norm. For all, retirement is only an injury away, and it's a rare player who chooses to leave the game before getting pushed out. Most pros never finish college, and the majority do little to prepare for the day when they venture into the real world.
'DIPPED INTO HELL.' For most, the real world is a big step down. Big-time pro athletes are pampered like royalty. They fly first class while hired hands pay the bills and tote the luggage. High-powered executives and heads of state fawn over them. "You begin to feel like Louis XIV," says Wilbert McClure, a two-time Golden Gloves boxing champion who is now a psychologist and counselor to basketball players. Step off the pedestal, and everything changes. McClure likens it to "being dipped into hell."
That plight is far worse for players who don't know where to go once they leave the field, and today's athletes are less likely to know than those of an earlier era. Once, players had no illusions about retiring on their athletic salaries and worked outside jobs in the off-season. Tarkenton, with a degree in business administration, had spent several years in computer consulting by the time he left the Minnesota Vikings. But today's gridiron greats and power pitchers are encouraged to spend their months off doing little but tuning up for the next season.
Problem is, the supply of "next seasons" is limited, as are those monster paychecks to which an athlete so quickly becomes accustomed. Entering the pros in their tender 20s, most athletes are ill-prepared to handle big money. Some arrange for a portion of their pay to be deferred, but even money in the bank can't straight-arm all the troubles today's ex-athletes face. Many give power of attorney to their agents, allowing them to do everything from paying bills and taxes to picking investments. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., says he's seen more than one player "turning over all his money to a guy he just met who dressed nice and talked smooth. The next year, you couldn't find the agent."
It's every American's right to get conned. But athletes, by virtue of their high visibility, make tempting targets for scam artists. Abuses vary from incompetence to fraud. Former New York Islander captain Denis Potvin says he never took a close look at his own financial situation until his 12th year in pro hockey. Until then, his agent "just took care of it and said, `Look, you'll be a millionaire. You won't have to worry about anything for the rest of your life.' " But when Potvin inspected his holdings, he discovered that the agent's bungling had left him owing a wad in back taxes. Potvin was among the more fortunate: He sued, recouped most of his losses, and today makes a good living in investment research.
Players' unions have moved only halfheartedly to curb abuses. Since the mid-1980s, the players' associations of the four major team sports (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey) have begun keeping records on agents, but how much good it does is questionable. The football players' association originally made agent certification mandatory. Now, agents merely register with the association--if they feel like it. Registration is voluntary in hockey, too.
CAN'T SAY NO. Even if they wanted to, the unions can't act in loco parentis. Baseball's union requires agents to become certified, but Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn., points out that his group oversees only an agent's work as a contract negotiator--not as a money manager. Nor can the MLBPA influence the zillions of so-called investment advisers who bombard players with often-dubious financial advice.
Some players simply can't say no to business propositions. When former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas filed for personal bankruptcy in February, friends shook their heads over the wacky ventures he had been persuaded to invest in: Florida swampland and a crab and catfish company, to mention two. His downfall, though, was National Circuits Inc., a Baltimore electronics maker in which Unitas invested $3.5 million though he knew little about the business. The company's assets were sold to Atlantic Electronics Inc. for $1 million. Unitas and two partners were stuck with $5.3 million in liabilities. Unitas declined to comment.
Drug and alcohol problems may be as common as bad investments. Figures on substance abuse in sports aren't publicly available, but drugs have derailed plenty of players in the past, including pitcher Vida Blue, former Detroit Pistons great Spencer Haywood, and Miami Dolphins speedster Mercury Morris. Anecdotal evidence indicates that a good number still have troubles. Players' associations, though, claim that through drug testing and counseling, they've made headway against the problem.
ALIMONY PAINS. Divorce hurts many, too. One study says 67% of pro football players have been divorced at least once. The national average is some 50%. And the burden of alimony and child support can be a terrible strain on incomes that drop sharply after retirement. Argues former Chicago Bulls star Bob Love: "The thing that kills the ex-ballplayer is that most of them go through a divorce. The alimony straps you."
Most athletes simply aren't ready for what hits them after retirement. Says Harry Edwards, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley: "If you discuss with them what their post-athletic-career plans are, the overwhelming majority of athletes have absolutely none." High salaries that lead the financially naive to think they're set for life only exacerbate the situation. When players do consider the future, an overwhelming number yearn to remain close to their sport--either through coaching or broadcasting. The number of such jobs available, however, is tiny.
Players may be less prepared than ever for life after retirement. Upshaw says that because players can now turn pro before their four years of college eligibility are up, they are less likely to have degrees than the pros of yesteryear. He claims that the NFL does everything it can to dissuade players from earning their degrees or indeed working on anything but football in the off-season. An NFL spokesman challenges Upshaw's claim, noting that many of its teams have tailored individual programs to help players finish school. The NFL would happily discuss a league-wide program, he adds, if only the association would come to the bargaining table.
Baseball does little better for its players. Most have little or no college, since they often sign on straight out of high school. Fehr is pessimistic about players doing much to help themselves. "There is a perception they're going to play forever," he says. He also thinks athletes have a false impression of their job prospects. "There is a notion that being a pro athlete gives you a leg up on job opportunities. In my experience, that's not true at all," he says. In fact, says Fehr, many companies aren't interested in hiring what they consider just another dumb jock. Former hockey player Potvin, who once worked in real estate, says that even after he had been in the field for some time, he encountered potential clients whose unspoken message was: "I wanted to meet you, but I can't take you seriously as a real estate person."
Hockey and basketball players' associations are more upbeat. In hockey, two sports psychologists visit players periodically to talk about planning and offer advice. The NBA and the union run a counseling program that includes advice from San Diego-based PACE Sports Inc., a career counseling firm for professional athletes.
'APATHY.' Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society is also beginning to make considerable headway. A program started there in 1984 works with 71 colleges to provide additional education to players who didn't complete their degrees before entering the pros.
In the end, whose responsibility is it to see that players get a decent start in life after sports? Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach accuses the NFL and the players' association of doing "absolutely nothing" to help players prepare. But Staubach, who runs a commercial real estate business in Dallas, also laments the "apathy" of many players and agrees they should take more initiative. Says psychologist McClure: "Teams hire people to do a job. So I don't think a team can be responsible for any athlete's success" after he leaves.
Maybe so. But tell that to Chris Washburn, kicked out of the NBA in 1988 for drug use. The last time anyone saw him was a few weeks ago. He was wandering destitute through some of Oakland's meanest streets. The big time must have seemed very far away.AFTER THE CHEERING STOPS
National Football League players retiring since
1979 who say injuries were the reason for retirement 42%
Retired NFL players who have made four or more
major career changes since leaving football 21%
Retired major leaguers who tried to get back into
professional baseball in some manner 33%
Retired major leaguers currently holding
a baseball-related job 5%
Major league baseball players lacking college
degrees when they turn pro 86%
Retired baseball players who would play
professionally tomorrow if they could 100%*
* Of 60 retired major leaguers who played at least four years between 1972 and
DATA: BALL STATE UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF SPORT
Andrea Rothman in New York, with Stephanie Anderson Forest in Dallas and bureau reports