Exploring athletes and depression (cont.)
Between 2003 and 2011, I interviewed more than 200 retired elite and professional athletes, sports journalists and sports executives. I wanted to take the discussion of emotional trauma in retired athletes from the backroom into the classroom. I wanted to know what the direct and indirect contexts were that affected emotional quality of an athlete's exit from a life in sports. It was a self-healing journey that resulted in a bunch of letters after my name, a new identity, a new job, and a 424 page insomnia-curing door stop of a dissertation. It never seemed like work when I was talking to fellow ex-pros about the things that mattered to us. And the findings were revelatory.
Race and ethnicity had little bearing on the quality of an athlete's exit from sports. Gender did. Money in the bank was a factor: too much or too little were not as good as having a few years to retool your mind, body and spirit. Pre-retirement counseling and health were significant as were the specifics of the sport that you played. Those in individual sports showed less difficulty than those from team sports for a variety of reasons ranging from salary levels to knowing how to do laundry or cooking. The specific reasons for retirement -- something detailed in a number of earlier studies as significant -- appeared less significant.
An athlete's relationships with their team or league and the media and their fans became an entirely new research terrain when looking for the reasons that we so wish Seau might have telegraphed. Tweeting, for example, may have an effect on the retiring athlete because new social media will allow the athlete to control their image. In many ways, the findings suggested that themes of mortality were lurking just below the surface. Not so much about physical death but what the idea of death and dying meant when set up against the youthful vibrancy of elite sport. We are a youth-centric society and few images signify notions of immortality more than the youthful athlete. And even if the elite or professional athlete realizes this, they may not feel it nor speak about their guaranteed exit from sport.
From an early age, an athlete is conditioned to talk with the language of their body. This is what they know; the words we want them to voice. And an act of suicide by a young athlete is more than a single scream in the dark. It is a tragic message sent around the world. You might think you know what it's like to be a sports hero but you don't, it seems to say. And we need to listen better and listen sooner.
As we revere our athlete heroes and negotiate their failures we must confront them individually, not as a misanthropic or idealistic collective. Few of us fully understand the perils of a vaulted existence. Many of the fallen athlete heroes have surrendered wholly to the pursuit of earthly greatness, exposing them to the terrifying process of public ruination when failed investments or morality or the ravages of physical decline come to collect. They struggle in both their young bootstrapped quests to make it to The Show and their ignominious return to regularity. All for the chance to be king. And most say they wouldn't change a thing.
Navigating in the rear view mirror, I now realize that I retired too late, too tired. And while I left professional sports in 1999 at 42 years old with nearly 100 career victories, two World Ironman Championships and enough money to last two years, I still had no idea how hard it would be to become a regular guy. Deciding that pro sports had been a sidebar in my life, I returned to the crossroads of young adulthood and graduate school. It was then that I sought and found like minded retired athletes who would talk to me because, like a veteran posted up at a VFW Hall, I had earned the conversation.
I finally began to realize what the tennis great and philanthropist Andre Agassi meant when he said, "in a way, professional sports can keep people from becoming who they really are." MLB Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr. talked about how he had designed his life after sports 10 years before his last at-bat. The speedskater Eric Heiden shared stories about sitting in little wooden classroom desks as he sought entry to medical school with five Olympic gold medals in his backpack and some 19 year-old kid asking, "Dude, don't I know you?" Former Cy Young Award winner, Rick Sutcliffe told me that he would rather return to coaching young pitchers than travel as "America's Guest." And 1976 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Jerry Sherk told me within the first five minutes of our long relationship that the sooner I realized that the best part of my life was over, the sooner I could move on to a pretty decent second half. Sherk, who had earned a master's degree in counseling psychology, knew the signs and cut mine off at the pass.
"Professional athletes feel like they are a part of a greater entity," says Stern. "There is a sense of self-worth that is developed and supported along the way by being in the limelight of the field." And then where do you go when the stadium lights go down? And who can you speak to about these feelings of despair? For many, asking for help is a sign of weakness and a visit to the therapist a sign that you have failed.
Predictably, we have witnessed rule changes in the NFL over the past several years. And who cares if they are knee-jerk reactions to the shifting distinctions and tastes of a discerning and always hungry fandom and market-savvy NFL? Tens of millions of dollars have reportedly been transferred from the NFL into the NFL Players Association in an effort to ameliorate this growing concern for players. So, let the public discourse spread from tailgates to top-dollar class action suits. This is how we best air the dirty laundry that has already blown off the line.
Over time, as our best years are perhaps tethered to our brightest stars, we struggle to see through our own shortcomings and appreciate the thrills and inspiration that our sport heroes provide. We get caught up in those moments of sporting exaltation and expect them, along with our own youth, to last forever. But when those moments and those athletes fail to go on and on, we are filled with a profound sadness, a feeling that we may not witness this greatness or feel our own connection to immortality ever again.
And in some strange way, we imagine that's what Junior Seau was thinking.
Scott Tinley, a two time Ironman World Triathlon Champion and Triathlon Hall of Famer, holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and is a lecturer at San Diego State University. His 2003 book, Racing the Sunset, explores the complex world of athlete retirement and transition.
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