Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Roller Coaster That is Sports Stardom

Walking through the mall a few weeks ago, I saw that a group of football players from my (SEC) alma mater were signing autographs outside one of the department stores. I had had a class with one of them, and decided to stop by and say hi since I hadn’t seen him in a while.

He sat at a table with four other former Division I stars, all dressed in their jerseys and looking as strong and fit as ever. Several of them had been drafted in late rounds by NFL teams, but none of them had managed to make the final cut. When I asked my friend what he was up to, he told me he was living at home and looking for a job.

This confession startled me, but also brought me to an important realization. This football star, a big man on campus only 18 months ago, and briefly a member of an NFL team, was now in (nearly) the same situation I was. (I have a job.)

I realized there must be thousands of Tonys out there, athletes on the brink of making it big, but who fall just short. Athletes who excel in competitive NCAA Division I sports, but are not quite good enough to get paid to play. It must be incredibly crushing to the self-esteem of an athlete who has dominated for so long to be so close to his lifelong dream, and yet unable to go all the way. To be in the top .01% of one’s sport, but due to a bad combine or an inopportune slump failing to get that million-dollar contract that the guy next to you gets.

Many of these millions of near-pro athletes find themselves returning to regular life without having developed other vocational skills, devoting themselves in college instead to their athletic career. Furthermore, they likely suffer to some degree from depression, haunted by what-ifs and denial. To be thisclose to stardom, mansions, Ferraris, and rings and then a week later be living with Mom is not an easy situation to come to terms with.

There’s not much I can do to help console them, as I am incapable of fully empathizing with them, but I feel the NCAA must do what it can to reach out to those who dedicated themselves to collegiate athletics, with the dream of playing professionally, only to find themselves just shy of that goal. Hopefully the NCAA already does this—tries to help its graduates find work and fulfillment—for their success outside of athletics is crucial to our success as a sports-loving society.

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