30 years ago as a former college athlete (volleyball) and then a graduate student in Sports Counseling (a hybrid with the Counseling and Physical Education Departments I negotiated at the time)and a graduate assistant with athletes at Syracuse University, my goal was to work with ‘revenue’ athletes (college and professional) who retired from sports, either on their terms or pre-maturely. As a female I think I was ahead of my time.
I realized at the end of my studies that no one would take a former female athlete seriously in working with men (that was also partly my lack of confidence). The people who succeeded in this work where psuedo-therapists, former athletes and men. However, my motivation for helping former athletes with ‘transition’ was based on having a child during my most important year in college sports, my senior year. My coach allowed me to play with doctor’s support, but essentially I like many men grew up in a ‘sports centered’ family and as an undergrad education was a means to an end because volleyball was my identity and ‘drug’ and it meant everything to me.
Women during that time also suffered damage to our bodies (I became engrossed in training properly, nutrition, and what I along with my sports identity considered a healthy lifestyle), luckily in volleyball not many athletes experience head injuries. But, after announcing I was pregnant my identity evaporated and I was crushed. I came to the realization that the people who I thought cared about me only did so because of my success as an athlete and this was equally devastating. I felt exposed, raw and my esteem was shattered even more than than it had been in all other aspects of my life outside of my sports identity. I felt like a ‘dumb jock’. The post sports ‘career’ injuries whether physical or emotional were equally devastating.
Why do I share this? Because, working with athletes was my dream; it’s also all I knew about myself…I was offered an internship after grad school at U of Maryland after Lenny Bias died. $5000 stipend for a year and with a small child I was to terrified to take that offer, one in which I was told I could write my ticket anywhere in the country after completing the internship.
I gave up on sports as a career and my professional trajectory took me on a path of working with ‘at risk’ college students (some were non-revenue athletes), to being a therapist in the poorest county in NY State to working with adults with ‘high functioning autism’ in private practice. In between, I worked with adults who suffered Traumatic Head Injuries (TBI) and taught college courses: Sports Sociology and Psychology. In the Gestalt of the 30 years, I always kept my eye on the sports world and the stories of athletes downfall due to drugs, suicide, hubris, etc. I met professional football players and am a good friend of a former professional basketball player. Working in Texas one year, I met Reggie Jackson and Donnie Moore (he was a relief pitcher for the California Angels who later killed himself).
All of these experiences ironically feed into what is my current passion and profession of working with adults with ‘high functioning’ autism in private practice. They, like many athletes have terrible difficulty with transition in life (for athletes it’s life after sports). I help them in all aspects of improving the quality of their lives and creating meaningful and sustaining social and personal connections.
All this to say, the consequences of years of participating in the ‘business of sports’ made me callous towards the salaries, the agents, the egos, management and the fact that our society is so blind to the consequences especially of the issue of head injuries that fans and management alike plow forward equally blind to the long term consequences these men and women will face in the future: Identity gone, chronic injuries, loss of relationships, addiction to pain medication and other drugs, inability to accept oneself as a person first and not an athlete, and the difficulty of finding a passion professionally or otherwise that doesn’t involve sports.
We as a society place to much importance on the ‘business of sports’, the ‘success’ of athletes that we live vicariously through, the marketing of jersey’s and names and the cost of attendance. Unfortunately, Ebin Britton’s and many other former athletes inability to see into the future and the consequences that follow impact the quality of their lives after sports at a time when the payoff of all of those years of hard work should be rewarding.
A couple of years ago, I worked with a young high school athlete who played football, was quite good, also academically highly potentialed. He articulated his fear of continuing in the sport (and the fear of disappointing his parents) because of the publicity of head injuries. He was filled with anxiety and attention and focus issues. I haven’t seen him for over a year and I am quite certain that with the pressure he was under by the adults in his life, that he was directed in a way that sports was critical to his future.
Like the author, I have no regret either. Sports in many ways made me the resilient, hard working and dedicated professional, mother and wife that I am today. Going through what I did so early, made me get back on my feet, focus on giving a daughter the opportunities I could never have foreseen (she is likely going to Medical School on scholarship). Ironically, all of my sport experience and knowledge has made me the best ‘Coach’/Therapist and Advocate. Without that hard work, the crushing blows and perseverance I might never have discovered the opportunities I have been given along the way. The ‘business of sports’ is not going away. It’s the job of advocates, writer’s and former athletes to prepare the next generation to consider the long term blueprint that will be their future and lives.