Two overlapping time periods are key determinants for successful retirement from elite sport. The period of transition, which comes in the immediate aftermath of retiring begins when an athlete recognizes that his or her career as an elite athlete is over. Transition ends when he or she feels adjusted to a life that no longer includes elite-level competition. A much longer time-frame examines the interval from when they leave their sport until the end of life. Long-term outcome studies compare retired elite athletes to the general population, mentally, physically, medically, financially, socially, and behaviorally. The quality of a transition out of sport, as described by Taylor and Ogilvie (1994), serve as the theoretical underpinning of the Athlete Transition Study.
There might be a problem… Early in the 21st century, media began to portray athletes’ stories that deviated from the traditional ‘superhuman’ narrative. These stories were distressing and sometimes tragic, depicting athletes who are just as vulnerable as the rest of us. Fans became increasingly aware of an unwelcome reality that a sport star’s life had a dark side.
By this time, sports were the most consumed form of entertainment. It was a business megalith, featuring live television, ESPN, advances in media technology, fandom, merchandise sales, cable, internet, Twitter, podcasts, and expansion worldwide.
Ironically, the sport industry’s smallest membership is the athletes. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics listed only 13,600 jobs in professional sports, and there are half a million NCAA athletes. Compare that to the 155 million people who watched sport on television in 2019. A vast and diverse group of stakeholders whose entertainment and livelihood depend on sport revenue surround elite athletes. The NFL alone is an $11 billion a year business. For perspective, in a world of approximately 8 billion people, there are 3.5 billion soccer fans.
Fan’s insatiable appetite for sports entertainment and their concern for athletes’ welfare collided in 2012 when NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide. An autopsy discovered neurological injuries identified as CTE, injuries inarguably acquired from playing football. Then came the 2013 homicide arrest of Aaron Hernandez. The autopsy after Hernandez’s suicide also revealed evidence of CTE.
But it wasn’t only cognitive issues plaguing our retired heroes. In 2012, ESPN Films released a 30-for-30 episode titled Broke. Sports Illustrated quotes the episode,
“By the time they have been retired for two years, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress; within five years of retirement, an estimated 60 percent of former NBA players are broke.”
Reports also found evidence for increased risk of chronic pain conditions, obesity, sleep apnea, mood disorders, addiction, suicide, and diabetes. Concern for the impact of sport on the long-term welfare of athletes was growing. Those concerns had already permeated some of the larger sport institutions, including the NFL and NCAA, which commissioned reports studying retired athletes.
We don’t see a problem. Let’s consider two of those studies, one on retired NFL football players and the other on NCAA athletes as compared to non-collegiate athletes.
In 2009, the NFL Player Care Foundation hired the University of Michigan to conduct a study of retired NFL players. The following is a quote from the executive summary:
In many ways, [this study] debunks popular myths and shows that some commonly held perceptions about NFL players are actually misperceptions. Some of these myths have arisen, no doubt, as a result of isolated, high-profile events involving a few NFL players. This study of a random sample of retired NFL players paints a different portrait…The study finds retired players to be in very good stead, overall. They are satisfied with life and deeply connected with their social networks and communities. Their history of physical fitness (including low rates of smoking and high levels of physical activity) shows up in low rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. On most other health problems they are similar to or healthier than the general population. However, they do have much higher rates of arthritis and reported pain and mobility problems than the general population. Retired players are in good financial shape overall, although there are a small percent of retired players who report financial difficulty. This is particularly true for younger retirees who appear to have more difficulty transitioning from their NFL careers than their older NFL counterparts. Playing in the NFL was a very positive experience for most retired players, and they appear to welcome continued contact with the organization and other retired players.
Next, let’s look at a quote from a 2014 Gallup index report on former NCAA athletes, where the authors conclude:
…overall, the college experience, viewed through the lenses of emotional support and experiential learning, looks quite similar for former athletes and their non-student-athlete peers. However, the picture of the well-being of these two groups is somewhat different. Former student-athletes are significantly more likely to be thriving in four out of five areas, which is important because it demonstrates that former student-athletes are excelling in multiple areas of well-being.
These studies illustrate the prevailing view of leadership in sport; that retired athletes may face some challenges, but these are primarily isolated events reserved to very few individuals. They dismiss the idea that there is a large-scale problem.
Pulling back the curtain. When the movie Concussion released in 2015, and the conversation exploded. Since then, numerous documentaries and media deep-dives have addressed the life circumstances of athletes facing a range of problems that profoundly affect them before and after retirement. The 2015 arrest and conviction of Larry Nassar, accused of sexually assaulting over 250 gymnasts, ripped the curtain back to reveal horror in the locker-room. It forever tarnished the public persona of retired athletes as famous, wealthy superhumans living in luxury and fame. Brave athletes and some media have coordinated to open up and shine a light into sports dark corners.
Harvard is conducting the most notable current project on the health of retired NFL athletes. In 2014 the NFL Players Association provided a grant to understand and addressed four areas of risk to playing American Football: neurocognitive health, cardiovascular function, sleep, and pain/physical function. The study produced numerous findings, but let’s start by considering Franziska Plessow and colleagues’ discoveries regarding mental and cognitive health. She writes,
Of the 3,758 former professional players included in the analysis, 40.0% reported daily problems due to cognitive dysfunction. Former players who reported daily cognitive problems were morelikely to also report depression (18.0% vs. 3.3%) and anxiety (19.1% vs. 4.3%) than those without daily cognitive problems. Furthermore, former players reporting daily cognitive problems were more likely to report memory loss and attention deficit(/hyperactivity) disorder and poorer general mental health, lower quality of life, less satisfaction with social activities and relationships, and more emotional problems. These findings highlight the potential of an assessment of cognitive symptoms for identifying former players with mental health, social, and emotional problems. 40% of retired NFL players report problems with their thinking. Those players were six times more likely to suffer from depression and more than 4-times as likely to experience anxiety. Former NFL players were six times more likely than the general public to report having serious cognitive problems, including confusion, memory loss, anxiety, and depression.
The effort to better understand the long-term impact of retirement from elite sports has begun.