Monday, May 14, 2012

On Retirement: Athletes and The Grass That Grows "Over the Hill"

It hasn't been all smiles
for Darrell Waltrip since
he retired from NASCAR.  
I was drawn to an article written late last week by Marty Smith, ESPN’s lead NASCAR reporter, who took time in his column to chronicle the emotional and financial struggles of former NASCAR greats like Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip. Smith’s piece included supplementary perspectives from retired professionals like driver Ricky Craven, NBA center Brad Daugherty, and others, but the crux of his work examined the idea that “athletes die twice.” Smith credits the aphorism to comments made by longtime sportswriter John Feinstein on a Charlotte radio show in reference to the recent suicide of retired NFL player Junior Seau. From

“Feinstein expounded on the comment by noting that, upon retirement, the world as a professional athlete has always known it no longer exists, and that he or she must completely relearn how to function in society. He then cited the difficulty many former athletes experience in the taxing attempt to acclimate themselves to what most of us consider normal.

“The stringent nature and structured routing required to achieve professional sporting excellence is no longer necessary. And even more dynamic than that, the doting adulation and attention from fans, media, family and most everyone else in their midst vanishes. Just like that.”

In his column, Smith noted that Wallace and Craven suddenly found themselves unable to pay for all the things they once could. Jarrett said the depression-like emotions he battled in early retirement contributed to his divorce. Waltrip struggled mightily with the idea that his late-career performance didn’t mirror the success of the 80+ wins he’d accumulated between 1975 and 1992.  As triumphant and driven as they’d been on the track, the inability to sustain that prosperity and sense of purpose made their racing “after-lives” painfully unfamiliar.

By comparison, former NFL defensive lineman Trevor Pryce seems to be handling the early stages of retirement with a little more skill. At 36, he’s not even 18 months removed from a 3-tackle performance in the New York Jets’ loss to Pittsburgh in the 2011 AFC championship game. But while Pryce, a father of three, can relate to feeling similarly rudderless in the open water beyond his football career, he doesn’t seem quite as troubled as some. From

Having retired way before my time, I have started to lose focus and drive. At times, I feel ostracized.
“…Starting from scratch can be unsettling. If you’re not prepared for it, retirement can become a form of self-imposed exile from the fulfillment and the exhilaration of knowing you did a good job…

“During the six-month off-seasons [during my career], I pretty much educated myself, dabbling in music, Hollywood, journalism, real-estate and everything in between, with varying degrees of success. I was able to do a lot in so little time. Now that I have all the time in the world, it’s amazing how little I accomplish every day…

Trevor Pryce is a little unsure about his
retirement, but he's working to figure things out.
“Don’t cry for me, though. I’m getting used to it slowly and will be content with my new life. That is, until [Jets coach] Rex [Ryan] calls.”    

One point made elsewhere in the Pryce and Smith pieces was the importance of age and tenure in the retirement process. “[For] Most of us competitors... you’ve [competed] for a very long period of time, and that will and desire to compete doesn’t just go away,” Jarrett tells Smith. But there is a spectrum to that “very long period.” A man like Waltrip, who drove amateur races as a teenager, finds himself beyond the half-century mark with the daunting knowledge that the one thing he’s been trained to do for the better part of 40 years is now no longer his profession; he’s almost twice as old as ball-sport retirees like Daugherty and doubly tethered to his primary skill set.  The older they get, the harder it is to teach dogs new tricks.

In talking to Jarrett (age 55, retired at 51), Wallace (55/48), Waltrip (65/52), and the others, Smith made it clear that none of them really understood the impact of that lifestyle change, how it would more or less wrench the fabric of their existence right out from under their feet.  All of the men spoke to similar psychological problems that handicapped their efforts in post-retirement life: lack of focused competition, departure from community/peer group, financial losses, decreased attention from fans, and overall, a paralyzing feeling of inadequacy and not knowing how or where to ask for help. 

If there were an obvious solution to helping retirees in their second careers, the answer would seem to be education, an objective the NFL has already identified. I’ve definitely wondered whether or not the existence of so many NFL players’ charitable initiatives is a requirement of league by-laws, but depending on how involved the player is, I suppose it could also serve to expose the athlete to a business-like infrastructure that they don’t see in weekly practices or one-on-one contract negotiations with their front office. I’ll have to do more digging into that to see if players’ foundations are somehow mandated by the country’s only professional non-profit sports league. 

I don’t know nearly enough about NASCAR to even begin to think of ways that its veterans might benefit from some sort of post-racing training — shoot, for all I know, such a program already exists, and the struggles of these lifers simply surpass the knowledge delivered therein.  Nonetheless, it’s distressing to read a column like Smith’s, where there is no apparent answer for dealing with a lifetime of success that seems to have suddenly fallen out of one’s pocket. To be fair, these drivers have had their share of nights with bright lights and days with bulging wallets, far more than the average joe who works a 40-hour week for 40 years and gets to retirement a whole lot later.  But considering the early end met by Seau and others who battled post-career demons, the most responsible move would be to putting even more emphasis on making drivers and other athletes aware of the fiscal and mental challenges that face them once their primary careers are finished.

“The idea of doing nothing — that’s the American Dream, right? That’s called retirement?” Craven told Smith. “It’s a lonely place.”

Nobody should be lonely at the end.