The National Football League has taken more heat over the last 10 days than I can ever remember. Once TMZ’s elevator video of Ray Rice and his wife Janay went viral it was game on. Since then Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted and arrested for allegedly abusing his son; Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was charged and arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman and their 18-month old child and Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was sidelined for a July conviction of domestic violence against an ex-girlfriend.
Quite a turn of events for a league enjoying record-breaking profits, increasing TV ratings and popularity with fans. So now what? If something productive doesn’t happen soon, the crowds just might stop cheering…at least as loudly as the NFL has grown accustomed to. I think this is a great time for the NFL to prepare it’s workforce for what happens when the crowd stops cheering which will in turn help players and coaches become more balanced individuals.
Why is that important? I’m glad you asked. I’ve been working to produce a documentary called just that: ‘When the Crowd Stops Cheering.’ In a nutshell, it examines the journey of the professional athlete from the days of Pop Warner, Youth Basketball, and Little League Baseball. Talented young athletes often receive special treatment. There are rules, but the more talented you are the more mulligans you are allowed. If you’re really talented by the time you reach high school you maybe even be recruited to attend a particular school or academy. And if you’re good enough to play at the collegiate level, especially a Division I school, well hot diggity dang!
Only one in 16,000 high school athletes has a professional career in sports
|Student Athletes||Men’s Basketball||Women’s Basketball||Football||Baseball||Men’s Ice Hockey||Men’s Soccer|
|% High School to College||2.9%||3.15||5.8%||5.6%||12.9%||5.7%|
|% College to Pro||1.3%||1.0%||2.0%||10.5%||4.1%||1.9%|
|% High School to Pro||.03%||.02%||.09%||.5%||.4%||.08%|
Source: National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Estimated Probability of Competing in Athletics Beyond the High School Interscholastic Level.
So now this young man, and I’m focusing on the path of male athletes because let’s face it… their track is different from most female athletes. Much like the revenue. This college athlete’s experience is not exactly like those of the other student athletes. He has more resources, athletic and otherwise. There is much more support including someone doing everything from figuring out his class schedule to what he will eat, when he sleeps, how is laundry is handled, etc.… For most of us attending college is a big part of our maturation process. We are charged with making decisions and choices about our lives and development in many cases for the very first time. We learn about budgets, scheduling classes, and just doing the things grown ups do.
Unfortunately many star athletes are often exempt from these growth opportunities. Just like the days of Pop Warner, someone is pretty much doing everything for him. Then he goes on to be one of the 1% of college athletes that makes it to the next level. So this 21, 22 or 23 year old is not thrust into the world with a big paycheck and told to now be a grown up. Really? Just like that? He doesn’t think he’s ill prepared because he has agents and women and hangers on and friends and family telling him how wonderful and talented he is. But now it is time to make decisions and choices about everything in his life from women to representation to fiancés to playing at this new amped up even more demanding level. Keep in mind, this is a performance driven industry and you only get to keep your highly celebrated, high-paying job if you perform at expected levels. That’s fair enough. But where is the balance? During this phase of the journey the athletes and those close to them likely argue that balance stuff is really overrated.
Let’s say said athlete plays in the NFL and has a fairly successful career that lasts longer than the average 3.3 years. That makes him 25 to 27 years old when his career ends. At that age, many people are just getting started in their careers. So this young man who has been revered and somewhat coddled during most of his developmental years is now faced with the reality of a life his is too often ill prepared for. What does he do now that the crowd has stopped cheering? For the sake of this story let’s say he has done a good job of financial planning and is not broke. He’s likely married and in many cases a parent and now forced to figure out what’s next. He has to figure out who he is away from professional sports and how to just be. That might sound simple, but from my research it is far from simple. I’ve interviewed players with different levels or success who struggle to deal with suddenly being viewed as ordinary. In the case of football players, the level of physical competition no longer exists. What is he to do with the aggressive behavior his job has required for so much of his life? How does handle not having an entire team and in essence family surrounding him almost daily? Who is he now?
These transitional times are when our life partners step in and help us through the rough spots. In many cases, that happens with professional athletes but not nearly enough. However she can’t help him with his identity crisis if her identity is tied to being the “Mrs. Him.” So now what? He has a lot more time at home with a woman he is finally getting to really know only to realize she’s pretty but not really what he needs at this juncture so there is turmoil. This story is not the exact journey for every single professional athlete, but it is a close if not accurate depiction more times than not. This athlete isn’t financially strapped or broke like we also see in many cases. Throw in financial pressure and you really have a crisis. Now what? Good question. And it is a question that should be dealt with much earlier in this journey.
The NFL, NBA, MLB and corresponding player unions and associations are failing these young men when they really need direction and support. Of course they have to develop and perform on the field and on the court, but they need balance so they can live productive lives away from the game as well. Professional sports leagues should create ongoing programs throughout the year, not just the obligatory rookie workshops they offer. Why not implement mandatory life skills and coaching programs throughout the year even during the season to compliment what they are doing on the court? It can only help and is certainly better than the alternative. We are seeing that played out now and it is not a good look. It is what happens ‘When the Crowd Stops Cheering’ on and off the field.