THOUGHTS OF WHEN AN ATHLETE’S TIME IS UP AND THE CHEERING AND THE ACCOLADES STOP
Yesterday there was a large-sized article in the sports section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times featuring UCLA’s heroic gymnast Christine Peng Peng Lee and her gymnastics journey.
The article described how she overcame many devastating injuries, the kind that would end the careers of pretty much anyone else; how she arrived in Westwood on crutches after having to miss competing for Canada in the 2012 Olympics and not only left UCLA a champion,
She ended her gymnastics career with back-to-back perfect tens on the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam,
With the perfect ten on that beam clinching the Bruins’ seventh national championship.
After I read about Peng Peng’s pronounced perseverance, and how she is now involved in a show at Sea World while she – like more or less all other new college graduates – embarks on a new chapter in her life,
I started to ponder something.
I got to thinking about how for everyone who throws a ball, hits a ball, shoots a ball, kicks a ball, catches a ball, or does unbelievable tricks on a four-inch wide piece of wood,
Sooner or later, there comes a time “…through no fault of your own”, stated a former Broadway child actress, “…when it’s just going to be over.”
As a coach told a teenage Billy Beane in the 2011 movie Moneyball, the film starring Brad Pitt about the Oakland A’s general manager and how his different approach to getting players changed philosophies among the Major League Baseball teams,
“We’re all told that we can’t play (baseball) anymore. Some of us are told at eighteen, some of us are told at thirty. But we’re all told.”
AS AN ASIDE: I was told I couldn’t play baseball anymore at fifteen when I was cut from my high school team due to my extreme lack of throwing ability.
For, according to the NCAA, 98% of all student-athletes, it ends at age 22 or 23. Or even sooner if they suffer a significant enough injury or the coaches decide that they no longer fit into the team’s plans.
The same goes for 96 to 97% of all high school athletes, the difference being that it ends at age 18 instead of their early 20s.
And even for those minuscule few who do win the lottery, so to speak, and earn a paycheck to play the sport they have loved since they were of single digit age,
Put it this way: The average career of an NFL or NBA player is anywhere from three to seven years.
For Major League Baseball it’s just as precarious – five years.
Meaning by the time one reaches thirty, it’s over.
After all the cheers and the accolades and the virtual worship, they are done.
They are back to being just plain ordinary folks like you and (especially) me, the vast majority of them – except for guys like Kobe Bryant, who are rare – needing to get regular jobs and become regular working stiffs.
The average careers of those very select few who achieve their goal of being professional athletes. Image courtesy of championsid.com
I find myself feeling sympathetic for them in that context, because it’s only human nature for one to enjoy being seen as a hero at least and a virtual God at best.
It’s only human nature to enjoy flying first class and staying at five-star hotels on a regular basis.
It’s only human nature to enjoy having your college education – and all the perks that go along with that; room, board, mandatory tutoring, priority class enrollment among other perks, both legal and illegal – completely paid for.
And it’s only human nature to enjoy having strangers show their love for you, tell you how wonderful you are for giving them such a pleasure in winning the big game or the national title.
When I think about it, it makes me completely understand what Tyler Honeycutt, the former UCLA basketball player who recently committed suicide, must have been feeling as while he was still getting a paycheck for playing hoops, it wasn’t in the NBA and wasn’t going to be for such.
Tyler was likely feeling despondent on a pronounced scale that his dreams of NBA immortality weren’t going to come true, that he was going to end up just like the rest of us.
As I’ve always said whenever I see people playing pick-up softball or in a slow-pitch league in a park,
“For about 99.9% of all the little leaguers out there, that’s where they’re gonna end up.”
Of course the same sentiment applies whenever I see folks playing flag football of pick-up basketball.
OK, HERE’S MY POINT…
I reckon it must be difficult – in various degrees, of course – for someone who’s experienced major success in sports to adjust to “civilian” life after his/her playing days are through.
I mean, in Peng Peng’s case, one minute she’s hitting two straight perfect tens and, with her teammates, celebrating a “Natty” for Bruin Nation due to such,
The next minute her career is done.
I’m just glad that most athletes know that their days in the spotlight will eventually end, plan accordingly, and go on to live good lives.
I’m also glad that UCLA, along with (I believe) every other school, has a program and a support system to get their student-athletes ready for that eventuality.
I only hope the future potential stars, like my volleyball-playing cousin who’s a sophomore in high school, recognize their ultimate future and prepare.
Christine Peng Peng Lee celebrating with her UCLA teammates after winning an unforgettable national championship for Bruin Nation, ending her gymnastics career in such a perfect way. Photo courtesy of espn.com