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Is A Career In Professional Sport A Bridge To Nowhere?

As professions go, professional sport tends to be seen as a fairly desirable one, coming complete with perks and plaudits, yet despite these modest benefits therein often only apathy awaits thereafter.

As soon as the sporting career is over, it’s not clear why others should really care. Defining oneself by the past is rarely as interesting as refining oneself for the future, and an entertainer once retired is normally no longer entertaining. Alas, outmoded and upended, for some, the softness of this indifference can be a hard pill to swallow, even though it probably represents a best-case scenario.

More worryingly, for many others, this ego-bruising can quickly escalate into financial-haemorrhaging, as the reality of this career cul-de-sac bites. Five years into retirement, around 70 per cent of NFL & NBA players are broke, while the equivalent number in the Premier League is only slightly less grim at 60 per cent. Consequently, ‘going out on a high note’, as many intend, is not so difficult if only because of the precipitous decline, or implosion, that normally ensues.

At a granular level, the causes of these complications in the afterlives of athletes are naturally complex and case-specific, but given how prolific they are, it’s also fair to say they’re both systematic and systemic. Whatever the intended goals may be, the trade-off of one success should never be a subsequent and equivalent failure. Even then, what might constitute career success? The idea is a bit nebulous, and a poor benchmark. ‘Conventional wisdom’ might judge a ten-year career to be a triumph, but the corresponding ‘collective wisdom’ might deem the lack of professional ‘future-proofing’ as a failure. The point is that duration alone doesn’t equate to merit, but it should at least be indicative of some level of preparedness for the future.

Within rugby, the various players’ unions such as The RPA, Provale, and Rugby Players Ireland do a great job trying to mitigate these dangers of insufficient preparation for a future transformed, but awareness alone is wasted without action. It’s like knowing that ‘winter is coming’, but refusing to budge, or listen to Jon Snow. Regrettably, this tends to be the case.

To better understand such embedded nonchalance, it’s useful to dispel some of the delusions that surround pro sport, and the moment the curtain finally falls is certainly one of them. ‘Retiring’ feels like the wrong word to describe this playing career termination. It’s a bit hyperbolic and gives the misplaced impression of departing in a calculated manner, befitting some grandiose plan.

A ‘firing’ wouldn’t be the right word to describe this transition either, but it’s probably just as true. An implicit firing perhaps, whether it’s a contractual low-ball or non-renewal, but who really cares? In pro sport, when it’s time to go, beyond those closest, the chances are that nobody does. In this way, retiring isn’t so much a choice, but a consequence, whether induced by unviability or unavailability, if not injury.

Despite many claiming to have retired ‘on their own terms’, more often than not it’s mere camouflage for a harsher reality. Just like how economics predicts decisions based on incentives, the bland truth is that they will have decided to quit rather than accept a fate even worse.

Instead, retiring feels more like a graduation, albeit a poorly planned one. A precipice of uncertainty awaits, and playing sport can feel a bit like going to university for ten years, only to come away with a certificate in science fiction. Compounding this still further, many athletes, seemingly intoxicated on their own ambitions, allow certain dubious ’designated advisors’ undue influence over key decisions. The result of which is often outlandish future plans that lack any real scrutiny and then erode quickly when exposed to reality.

When this so-called retirement eventually arrives, it can feel a bit like a butterfly’s metamorphosis, except in reverse, where the best days are gone and only the languid lifestyle of a caterpillar remains. In this world inverted, where cognition now suddenly outranks coordination, finding a new and equally rewarding niche can be a serious challenge.

All the various career options that seemingly existed when playing, which gave a false sense of security, often disappear immediately upon retirement, unless well kindled in advance. Worthy work experience that was rejected in the good times, isn’t likely to be extended in the bad times. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising. For a temporary employer (often a sponsor), a player’s profile can be an asset and put to a variety of business uses, but once retired, the ‘has-been’ becomes a liability only. Whatever transferable skills there might be from playing sport, they tend to be so basic as to be nearly meaningless.

As it is, retirees routinely learn the hard way that their value has been drastically diluted overnight. In the real world, employability isn’t linked to sporting nostalgia, but is instead bench-marked against more skilled and younger (i.e. cheaper) competition. This looming mismatch in abilities and expectations can be a daunting obstacle, besetting bankruptcy, bitterness, depression and even worse, as each indentation reinforces the others in a dangerous spiral.

With all the noise and hype that surrounds pro sport, detecting the signal of diminishing returns is not an easy thing, especially when considering the missed opportunity costs. To be a full-time athlete is clearly a wonderful thing, but it’s more of a pit stop than a destination. The question then is: when is the right time to leave the party? Too soon, and you miss the fun, but too late and the overindulgence can lead to a missed taxi, an impaired reputation and a long walk home.

In rugby, it sometimes happens that attacking teams suffer a communication malfunction, causing them to veer sideways in sync, unintentionally helping the drifting defence. With the writing on the wall – albeit written in invisible ink – each attacker expects someone else to redirect course, but ultimately nobody does until it’s too late.

Unwittingly, in the real world, many are heading towards a similar fate and running up a blind alley. They’d do well to remember that career accountability can never be outsourced and that the future is not someplace we go tomorrow, but somewhere we create today.

Eoghan Hickey, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.