Sports Illustrated has recently published a story online revealing the dire financial straits of retired and even some active professional athletes. They note that 78% of NFL veterans are bankrupt or in severe financial trouble within five years of retirement. 60% of NBA retirees are also broke five years after retirement. The numbers for major league baseball players were not quoted but numerous anecdotes of disastrous financial management on the part of baseball players were also given. These numbers include professional athletes who have made millions or tens of millions of dollars in their careers. The article goes on to analyze how so many players who have made so much money have managed to blow it all in such a short time. Basically the players, who often have no significant educational achievements, are easy marks for all sorts of “financial managers” who get them into all sorts of questionable investments, charge outrageous fees, and then leave them broke and with no recourse when the investments fail. If one examines how scholarship athletes, particularly in basketball and football are passed through school from about junior high, when their athletic ability is recognized, all through college, where they often have their homework done for them by “tutors,” it is no wonder that they have no knowledge of how to take care of their finances or their health when they leave college and sign their professional contracts.
Additionally there are alarming statistics, particularly for football players, about their physical health and lifespan after retirement. The incidence of Alzheimer’s like dementia in NFL veterans is about six times the national average, attributable to repeated concussive and sub concussive blows to the head. Their problem is similar to that of boxers and the football players even wear helmets. Not only do former professional football players suffer from a huge increase in the rate of dementia, their lives are shortened about 20 years compared to the average man in the USA. Death from all causes appears to increase but accidents, gunshots, drugs, and alcohol are particularly implicated. Short of death, many retired athletes have injuries to joints that cripple them for life. And they often have no marketable skills other than the sport from which they have retired.
Can something be done about this? I’m going to recommend education. The next time you watch a college football game on TV and the players are introduced and their majors stated, pay attention to what the young men are “studying.” I was particularly struck by a player who was introduced last year in a college game whose major was “public recreation.” Not only are the majors often suspect as academic disciplines, graduation rates of scholarship athletes are notably deficient compared to the rest of the students in a particular school except for a very few programs such as Stanford or Duke. So the athletes often don’t study subjects of any significant merit, they don’t even graduate from those majors. After they complete their athletic eligibility for the college, they are turned out into the world basically ignorant and often injured. Dexter Manley, from the University of Oklahoma, and a very successful player for the Washington Redskins, revealed late in his career that he could not read. Yet he maintained his academic eligibility. I am reminded of a story that was told about a young man in some Southern football program who was in academic difficulty. He had received a D+ and three Fs in his course work. He went to the coach for advice. After listening to the young player and examining his grades the coach offered this advice: “Son, it looks like you’re putting too much effort into one course.”
Here are some courses that I would recommend for the potential professional athlete major. These courses should not be watered down. Athletes are not stupid; they learn complex playbooks and work very hard at their sports. They have just been passed along without having to study academic courses because they were valuable to their schools as athletes. Football and basketball make a lot of money for colleges, even some high schools.
1. Gross anatomy. Here the athletes would learn how the body is constructed and how it works.
2. Neuromuscular physiology and kinesiology. This would teach athletes more about how the body functions, how motion of joints strains them and which sorts of movement are most efficient both for maximum performance and for safety. Mechanisms of injury of brain, muscle, and joint should be included.
3. Pharmacology of selected drugs likely to be encountered and used to include: steroids, cocaine, alcohol, and various narcotic and non-narcotic pain relievers and anti-inflammatories. Principles and mechanisms of addiction should be studied along with the effects and side-effects of all of the above. When studying anti-inflammatory drugs, the principles of inflammation and wound-healing should be studied. Almost no professional athlete gets through his career without some sort of injury requiring surgery.
4. Basic principles of business to include contracts, saving, investing, what interest is and how in accumulates, depreciation of assets such as cars, living way below one’s means when one’s earning career is expected to be short, etc. Literacy and “numeracy” must be achieved. How to recognize deals that are too good to be true.
5. The institution of marriage, pre-nuptial agreements, and divorce.
6. Human reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases, and how they can be prevented. Magic Johnson, whose finances seem to be intact, has HIV. The NBA has been referred to as the “fathers’ club,” because of the huge number of children fathered by its players. The Sports Illustrated article mentions players who have fathered 7 children with 5 different women and 9 children with 9 different women. Effectiveness of condoms needs to be taught. Child support requirements in the various states both for illegitimate and legitimate children after divorce need to be taught and understood. I believe that Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 different women. I don’t think that modern players view this as a record that can never be broken.
7. A class of horror stories of modern players who made tens of millions of dollars and lost it all in risky investments, child support, buying lots of homes, cars, jewelry and so forth. In these horror stories the “advisors” of the players who blew all their money should be named.
I’m sure that the reader can think of other classes that should be taught in the Pre-Professional Sports Major. What I have outlined above is just a start. We recognize pre-law and pre-med as disciplines where certain classes have to be taken and excelled in to qualify for admission to the professional schools. Why not a similarly rigorous program for the pre professional athlete?