BY: AIDAN MACNAB
A pro sports career almost only exists in dreams. Even if someone spends their entire life crafting an athletic pursuit, unless they have the proper, very specific physical characteristics and all aspects of their lives are nurturing to the narrow set of circumstances that can produce the development necessary, they won’t realize the dream.
For those who have made it, it’s like a lottery win. So few among so many have the shot and fewer still can capitalize on it for very long.
So to have made it to the pinnacle and decide to walk away to live a normal life seems like a slap in the face to all those kids in playgrounds visualizing what it would be like under the lights.
So why do some athletes train for a quarter of a lifetime to only walk away in their prime, opting out of promising futures and millions of dollars? Why do they set fire to a winning lottery ticket?
Chris Borland walked away from the NFL after a promising rookie season for the San Francisco 49ers. He led the team in tackles and showed the potential to be among the best in the game. But he decided that his health wasn’t worth his bank account.
He met with Robert Stern, neurologist and expert in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a common affliction among NFLers caused by concussions. Stern had studied the brains of 91 dead NFL players, 87 of whom had CTE.
Borland had been diagnosed with two concussions in his life, one from soccer and one from high school football. But now with a better understanding of the symptoms, he thinks he may have had around 30. Stern told him he might already have brain damage. After their conversation sunk in, Borland quit.
Would you take a few bruises on your brain for tens of millions of dollars?
The best linebackers in the NFL are making around 10 million a year. With Borland’s tremendous first season, there is every reason to believe he would end up among the elite. Would you take a few bruises on your brain for tens of millions of dollars?
Borland works with the scientific community to provide them with a living body to study the affects of American football on the human brain.
Larry Sanders’ case is different than Borland’s, but he too walked away from his life’s work when he retired from basketball at just 26 years old. He was immediately hit with a tide of criticism and attacks on his character.
The NBA lifestyle just wasn’t worth the toll it was taking on his mental health.
He was saying no, not only to the 27 million left on his contract, but likely, nearly a decade of future contracts and endorsement deals.
To Twitter and the sports pundits, Sanders was either crazy or on drugs. The truth was he had sought help for anxiety and depression and come to the conclusion that the NBA lifestyle just wasn’t worth the toll it was taking on his mental health.
Sanders doesn’t describe himself as a basketball player, but a father and artist who also plays basketball. He rejects the idolization of pro athletes and thinks that this fleeting stardom damages the young men who spend too much time in the spotlight. He took on a spiritual advisor, who warned him that her clients had made drastic life changes after working with her.
John Moffit is back in the NFL, after a brief hiatus brought on by the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky. A centre, who played with the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, said that with an altered view of life, he decided he didn’t need millions to be happy. He suddenly quit the NFL.
For some, dealing with mental health and a crisis of identity, this environment might not be worth the wealth.
Now signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, his retirement turned out to be a brief hiatus involving legal trouble and a stint in rehab. His one-time personal trainer believes that his change of heart was simply due to his substance use.
In pro sports, players are commodities. Their value comes out of their anatomical features, the health and deterioration of which, are analyzed by trainers, coaches and the media. A player’s intellect and emotional wellbeing are completely irrelevant unless they relate to their physical productivity. For some, dealing with mental health and a crisis of identity, this environment might not be worth the wealth.
But for Sanders, the wealth will remain. He’ll be making almost $2 million a year for the next seven as part of his contract buyout, a fraction of his potential, but still substantial.
Borland turned down a lot of cash in the wake of his retirement, including an offer to promote the new Will Smith film Concussion. He says he doesn’t want to monetize the work he’s doing to bring more clarity to the issue of concussions in football.
Are Borland and Sanders crazy, or do we on the lower side of the income spectrum misjudge how big money would make us feel?
Psychologists have studied this perception by asking people with a range of incomes about their satisfaction with life and how they’d imagine those from different income brackets would respond to the same question.
Higher incomes do carry with them a higher level of happiness, but those from lower income brackets overestimated happiness of the rich and the rich assumed those with modest livings were unhappier than they really are.
There is no consensus on the correlation between money and happiness. Many studies suggest that money only provides emotional benefits to a certain point, then the effect plateaus. Some studies contest this, saying the more you stack the better you feel. And others claim the connection between money and happiness is only slight.
But there is reason to believe that happiness is relative to circumstance. The Maasai are a tribe from East Africa, who enjoy no electricity, running water and live in huts made of shit. When studied, their sense of wellbeing was nearly equal to that of Forbes richest 400 people.
There is reason to believe that happiness is relative to circumstance.
Martin Seligman is a heavyweight of American psychology and studies what produces happiness and fulfillment in life. He and fellow researchers have come up with three different categories of human satisfaction: pleasure and gratification, embodiment of strengths and virtues, and meaning and purpose.
He believes that these three categories are also three levels of personal wellbeing. Pleasure provides for a pleasant existence, but seeing your strengths and virtues at work, is better. The most satisfying, however, is when you see those skills affecting meaningful change in the world.
A pro athlete has strengths and virtues on display, but unless they can delude themselves to believing their jump-shot, cross-over or 40 time is altruistic, according to Seligman, they ought not feel totally fulfilled.
Another factor is that, according the Seligman’s research, in societies “where people trust one another and are mutually helpful,” wellbeing is high and suicide rates are low. In the NBA, you are competing against everyone including your teammates. You’re only as good as your stats and are surrounded by yes-men and women who want to get close to you while you’re on top and will immediately get lost when you fall off. You’re passed around from team to team, having little control over who you work for, what your role is and where you live. It doesn’t matter what your character looks like, your value and the loyalty of those around you can deteriorate quickly. This is not an environment conducive to trust. So, based on the science of wellbeing, Sanders’ actions were pretty normal.
Borland and Sanders may have the key to an important lesson. Pro sports is not as glamorous as it seems and money is nice, but it’s not everything.
Image sources: latimes.com