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Playing for a living: the dream comes true for very few.

Playing for a Living: The Dream Comes True for Very Few

Coach Morgan Wootten is talking basketball. His audience is a group of 8-year-olds participating in the annual summer camp run by this man whose teams at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, consistently rank among the Nation's best. Their faces grow intent when he asks, "What's the key to playing good defense?'

A few youngsters raise their hands. "You have to be quick,' says one. "Good hands,' offers another.

"Those are both important qualities,' acknowledges Wootten, "but not exactly what I had in mind, because you have to be in the position to use them. The key is balance. If you're off balance, you'll be beaten every time. That's true in basketball, but, more importantly, it's also true in everything else that you do.'

That's the message Coach Wootten has passed to every one of his players for the last 27 years. And it's one of the reasons that every graduating senior on DeMatha's teams, from starter to sub, has received a college scholarship, and nearly all have earned their college degrees.

"We help the kids set priorities,' says Wootten. "Faith, family, and academics all come ahead of basketball. If these priorities are out of order, then you won't make it in our program. I always tell my players, "Dream your dreams, but don't let athletics use you or abuse you. You have to be prepared for the day when they take the ball away. And it will happen sooner than you think.''


Sports are a national passion in the United States. It's a safe bet that almost everyone who has ever bounced a ball, swung a racket, or caught a pass has also dreamed of a career as an athlete. But sports, the source of fun and fitness for millions, provide a livelihood for very, very few.

A Look at the Stats

The odds against young people realizing their athletic dreams are high. For every player who wears the uniform of a professional team, or sinks a winning putt in a golf tournament, or runs under the checkered flag at Indianapolis, thousands never will. Young athletes who bet their future on professional sports are in for a surprise when they look at the numbers.

Confidence is an asset in any sport, but overconfidence may lead to disappointment and defeat. On a recent broadcast of the "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,' a reporter questioned some young athletes about their perception of their chances of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Even the most modest youngster assessed his chances at 50 percent. The real numbers point to much poorer odds. They're not quite a million to one, but they're a long way from 50-50.

The National Federation of State High School Associations and its member State associations coordinate and administer competition in over 30 sports. Football, basketball, and baseball claim the most participants. According to the federation's 1984-85 sports participation survey, 1,006,675 boys played high school football, 494,000 played basketball, and 391,800 were on baseball teams.

These numbers were reduced drastically at the college level. About 111,000 students blocked on the gridiron, dribbled on the court, or shagged flies on the diamond, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). In other words, only one or two players on any high school team are likely to play ball at the college level.

Players who do well in college look forward to the annual drafts conducted by the major leagues. Most of them never feel a breeze. Harry Edwards --a sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley, collegiate track champion, and knowledgeable observer of collegiate and pro sports--says that only about 8 percent of the eligible athletes are drafted by professional teams.

The fortunate few who are drafted still must prove that they can play well enough to make the pros. Not many do. Edwards estimates that only 2 percent of the drafted players ever sign a professional contract. Among college football players, only about 1 percent ever make the National Football League (NFL). The total number of major league players in football, baseball, and basketball is only 2,261--a mere fraction of a fraction of the 1,892,475 who played in high school. The odds of a high school athlete's becoming a pro football, baseball, or basketball player aren't 50-50; they're 837 to 1. According to Edwards, "A youngster has a better chance of becoming a surgeon.' And even the one who makes the pros is likely to be out of sports within 4 years.

Making the Pros Isn't Easy

The Saturday sports shows parade an endless variety of athletic events. Many of them are strictly amateur activities, however. Almost nobody makes a living in gymnastics, swimming, or track. For those sports that do have 100 or more professionals, each league or association follows a slightly different procedure in recruiting new players. The differences are greatest between the team sports-- football, basketball, baseball, and hockey--and the individual sports-- such as golf and tennis.

Team Sports

Team sports trigger strong reactions. Visions of Celtic green and Dodger blue tug at some fans' heartstrings while prompting others to turn red with rage. But in the business of team sports, emotion and loyalty rarely intrude. Who is chosen and who gets to play are carefully calculated decisions.

Baseball. Major League Baseball carries 725 players on the 26 club rosters. As with the other major sports, players enter baseball through the draft or free agency. "The number of players drafted each year varies depending upon the year's crop,' says Tom Giordano, director of player development for the Baltimore Orioles. "One year, there may be 25 rounds, and the next year as many as 46. The players drafted in the first 10 rounds have the best chance of making it, at least to the minors. But there is no way to predict accurately how well a player will do. Don Mattingly, of the Yankees, was drafted in the 19th round. Look where he is now.'

The major league draft takes place every June. To be eligible, a player must be 18 or have completed high school. If he enters a 4-year college, he's eligible after his junior year or when he's 21. "It's very rare that a player goes straight to the majors,' says Giordano. "He has to develop his skills first.'

Baseball has an extensive minor league system. A player who is drafted will likely spend at least a few years in it, and those years might end up being the player's entire professional career. The minor leagues have 164 teams and about 4,100 players, each of whom believes that he will make the majors, says the Orioles' Giordano. "It usually takes a couple of years at the minor league level to tell whether a player has what it takes to make the big leagues.'

Basketball. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has 23 teams; each team carries a 12-man roster, for a total of 276 players. As in baseball, players enter the NBA either through the draft or free agency. The draft is mainly for players currently in college; most are seniors, although a player may declare himself to be a candidate for the draft before his senior year. Larry Fleischer, executive director of the NBA Players Association, says, "Every year, 161 players are drafted. Probably 55 players make the teams; and, by mid-season, this number is reduced to 40 or 45.'

The Continental Basketball Association (CBA) might be said to be a minor league for the NBA. Founded in 1946, actually 1 month before the NBA, the CBA comprises 12 teams that are subsidized by the NBA as a whole, although some teams have an individual relationship with an NBA club. The CBA conducts its own draft and selects players that were passed over in the NBA draft.

Jay Ransdall, of the Continental Basketball Association, says, "Players will stick around for 2 or 3 years and hope to make it to the NBA. If they don't, they might try to make one of the European teams. The money is better, but the all-important media exposure is practically nonexistent,' says Ransdall.

Derek Wittenberg is a veteran of the European leagues. Now assistant basketball coach at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia, Wittenberg played for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High and later starred in the backcourt for the 1983 NCAA champion North Carolina State Wolf-pack. He was a third round pick of the Phoenix Suns but was released in the final cut. Says Wittenberg, "Many players mistakenly believe that it's easy to make the European leagues. The tryouts were very tough. I went to the tryout camp and found there were 160 players competing, and 120 of them were guards.'

Wittenberg caught the eye of one coach, who invited him to LeMans, France, famous for its auto race, where the tryouts continued. He competed against two other guards, both Americans, through a 30-game exhibition season before finally making the team. He played 1 year. Then he returned home to complete his degree in economics and business, saying, "It was time to get on with my life.'

Football. The NFL has 28 teams; each team carries a roster of 45 players, for a league total of 1,260 players. Players enter the NFL in two ways: The draft and tryout camps. According to Mark Murphy, an NFL Players Association official who was an all-pro with the Washington Redskins, about two-thirds of the players enter the league through the draft conducted each spring. The rest are free agents, who win their way onto a team through individual tryouts. At the beginning of the 1986 season, 161 rookies were listed on team rosters.

Only players who have completed their collegiate eligibility are candidates for the draft. Each of the 28 NFL teams gets 12 picks, or 336 picks in total, from a pool of 15,000 or so eligible players.

Hockey. Each of the 21 teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) carries 24 men on its roster, for a total of 504 players. An NHL spokesman says that probably 85 percent of these players enter the league through the draft, which is held annually in June. The remainder win their time on the ice through free agent tryouts.

The clubs pick 252 players during the 12-round draft. To be eligible, a player must be 18 years old or have completed high school. A breakdown of the 1986 draft shows that 120 players came from the Canadian junior leagues; 22 from U.S. colleges; 40 from U.S. high schools; and the others from the various international hockey leagues. Usually, no more than one-fourth of those drafted will make an NHL roster in their first year. Most will skate for at least a few years in one of the minor leagues to refine their skills.

The American Hockey League and the International Hockey League are the two principal minor leagues; although independent of the NHL, each has a direct association with the big league. Mike Meyers, of the International League, says that "a young player is usually signed to a 3-year contract and will hope to be picked up by the NHL.' Typically, the odds are against them.

Individual Sports

Athletes in the individual sports--such as golf and tennis--generally have more control over their entry into the professional ranks than do those in team sports, in that there is no draft. An athlete's ability is, obviously, the key determinant. Additionally, each of the associations that govern competition in these sports maintains its own rules of eligibility.

Automobile racing. Several organizations regulate automobile racing, depending on the kind of car or kind of race. One organization, the International Motor Sports Association, authorizes races around the world. IMSA, which licenses about 2,000 drivers --including most of the top drivers in this country--says that probably no more than 20 percent of the total make a living from the sport.

IMSA and most other racing associations require that all drivers attend one of the professional driving schools, which cost at least $1,000. That's only the beginning. Nearly all drivers are members of a racing team that is usually sponsored by a major corporate backer. Sponsors hire only the top drivers. They won't trust a rookie with a million-dollar car.

Hank Ives, of the KRACO Racing Team, which races Indianapolis-style cars, believes that racing is one of the most difficult sports to break into. "Most drivers of Indy cars have worked their way to the top by running the various levels, from gocarts to Formula Fords. No matter the class, the cost is significant.' A driver needs financial backing early or, he says half jokingly, "He must grow up in a racing family. In no other sport do you see so many siblings or fathers and sons.' Look at the sports pages and you regularly see the Pettys, the Allisons, and the Unsers. Michael Andretti, the son of the Indy winner Mario Andretti, is a driver for KRACO.

Bowling. One of the most popular sports in America is bowling. The Professional Bowlers Association of America (PBA) has established requirements for becoming a pro. A bowler must average 190 for 2 consecutive years in league play and be 18 years old or a high school graduate. The association has 2,700 members; but, in 1986, only 147 were classified as Touring Pro I or II, which means that they were regular competitors on the PBA National Tour.

Boxing. Professional boxing is legal in 17 States, and each State establishes its own requirements for becoming a professional. Generally, a young boxer works his way through the amateur ranks, beginning at a local boy's club and progressing to Golden Gloves competition. If a fighter shows promise, he may be recruited by a professional boxing manager or trainer, who will help the fighter develop his skills. This professional handling is essential if a boxer wants to turn pro.

But professional boxing is an international sport. According to Herbert Goldman, managing editor of Ring, generally recognized as the authoritative magazine for the sport, about 18,000 boxers fought in 1985. But, he cautions, that number includes many thousands who stepped into the ring one time and quit. The number of fighters who actually contend for top prize money is much smaller. "We rank the top 10 fighters in each of the weight classes,' says Goldman. "Depending upon how you class them, that's about 150 fighters. You read a lot about multimillion-dollar winnings for a fight. No more than four or five fighters in a generation make that kind of money. I'd say that less than half of the ranked fighters even make a decent living. In the best year of his career, a good fighter is lucky to make $30,000.' And a boxer's career doesn't last long. "A 10-year career is several lifetimes for a professional boxes,' says Goldman.

Golf. Competition in professional golf tournaments is regulated by the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Only about 350 men were regular players on the PGA Tour in 1984-85, and about 270 women were eligible to compete on the LPGA Tour in the same year.

Numerous golfers try to break into the professional orbit. In fact, the PGA has nearly 9,000 members, but not all of them may compete on the tour. The PGA and the LPGA use similar methods to certify touring players. To compete on the PGA Tour, a player must possess a Tournament Player's Card, which may be earned in two different ways: A player must be among the top finishers in the annual PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament or earn an amount equal to the 150th ranked money winner of the previous year. That sounds like the classic Catch 22: How does a player earn money if he doesn't hold a card? The answer lies in the difference between the Tour and particular tournaments. PGA members who do not hold a card may still participate in tournaments. Two routes are open: Special invitation of a tournament sponsor and competition in a qualifying round held the Monday prior to a tournament. Once in the tournament, players are eligible for the same prize money as the other golfers.

Even players who have earned a card have no guarantee that they will be able to compete regularly for the big money. Only a limited number of slots are available in each tournament. Most of the rest are filled by players who are exempt from qualifying due to previous tournament victories or their rank in the tour.

Horseracing. According to the Daily Racing Form, the newspaper of thoroughbred racing, nearly 3,000 jockeys were in the saddle in 1986, and all of them likely spent years around the track before they got their first mount. Aspiring jockeys usually progress through various stages, "from groom to walker, to exercise boy, to apprentice jockey, and, finally, to jockey,' says John Giovanni, an ex-jockey and now an official with the Jockey's Guild. Each position requires a license, which makes horseracing "the most regulated sport in the business,' according to Giovanni.

In no other sport is weight so important a factor. "When I was racing, I tried to keep my weight at 113 pounds,' says Giovanni. Rarely, if ever, will a jockey weigh more than 120. Despite the weight restrictions and the fact that horseracing is, says Giovanni, "a very dangerous sport,' there is no dearth of interested riders.

Rodeo. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association authorizes more than 600 rodeos around the country. The association has more than 5,000 card-carrying members, but fewer than 200 cowboys ride the circuit full time. Almost every one of these rodeo stars also has another occupation.

To become a professional cowboy, you first have to purchase a permit that allows you to compete, and then you have to win at least $2,500 in a 1-year period.

Tennis. In many sports, as we have seen, competitors must attain a minimum age, usually 18, before being able to compete professionally. In tennis, there is no minimum age. If a player feels ready to challenge the pros, the key determinant is one's ability, not one's birthday. Still, the opportunity to play for the big money is available to only a few. Men's tournaments are regulated by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP); about 1,000 players from the United States and the rest of the world are ranked by it, but probably no more than a third of those ranked play the circuit full time. The governing body of women's professional tennis is the Women's Tennis Association (WTA); about 400 players regularly play its professional tour.

Spots in tournaments are usually afforded to top-ranked players. According to Ron Bookman, the deputy director of the ATP, the rankings are based upon a player's earnings and the tournaments in which a player competed. The results of about 300 tournaments held around the world are used in calculating the ATP rankings, which are recomputed 45 times a year. To be eligible for associate membership in the WTA, a player must either have earned at least $500 in any 1 of the past 2 years or, if an amateur, have finished sufficiently high in a tournament to have earned an equal sum. Full membership requires that a player have earned $15,000 in competitive tennis in either of the last 2 years or be ranked among the top 100 players by the WTA.

Making Money Isn't Easy Either

Youngsters who imagine their chances of making the pros to be no worse than 50-50 no doubt also believe that, if they do reach them, they'll be driving a Mercedes and eating filet mignon for the rest of their lives. In reality, for every sports millionaire, there is a bench full of people who are just scraping by. Do you find that hard to believe? Read on.

Few people know the business of professional sports better than David Falk, a principal partner in ProServ, Inc., a top international sports management agency. His company counts some of the foremost names in sports as clients. While acknowledging that some athletes are making phenomenal salaries, he asserts that "Using any measure of average earnings in professional sports as a guide to what the average player makes is very deceptive. What we've seen in the last few years has been a very real bifurcation, or split, in pro sports. The stars, and there are very few, are making more and more money. The marginal players in the major leagues, while making a good salary, earn much less.' And below the majors, salaries plummet.

Mr. Falk's comments are echoed by Larry Fleischer of the NBA Players Association. "One notion that is absolutely ludicrous is . . . that players are set for life. That can be said of a very small percentage of players, certainly no more than 5 percent. These are the superstars, like Dr. J or Larry Bird, who stand far above the other players. They're also players who have beaten the odds, not only by making it to the pros but by staying far longer than the average.'

Mark Murphy of the NFL Players Association concurs. "I hear so many players say that they're going to be set for life, but the odds are against them. Some players are becoming more conservative in how they structure their contracts and in deferring payments until later years. But there's no comparison between the star and the marginal player, either during a player's career or after.'

It's difficult to get that message across, particularly to young people who are deluded by the glamour inherent in professional athletics. John Underwood, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, says in his book, Spoiled Sport, "The pro myth is fed by an irresistible hype that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.' The pot is smaller than many young people think. And the rainbow fades very quickly.

According to the NFL Players Association, the average player made $193,000 in 1985. In the NBA, the figure was $320,000. Major League Baseball paid the highest average salary, at $371,000. These are certainly high salaries, although they are not as high as those paid to the top managers of America's large corporations. Even the minimum salaries paid in the majors are very, very good: $75,000 in the NBA, and $60,000 in the NFL and Major League Baseball. But remember that not all the pros are in the majors.

Minor league salaries are far lower than those in the majors. Talking of minor league baseball, Tom Giordano says, "A player in the A league usually makes about $700 a month during the season, plus $11 a day for meal money.' By comparison, the average typist starts at more than $1,000 a month. Things are not much better in basketball. Jay Ransdall, of the Continental Basketball Association, says that, if a player makers a CBA team, he "stands to make about $450 per week for the 14-week season.'

Earnings in the individual sports are even more poorly divided than those in the team sports, because these pros have to pay their own way. A player's expenses are considerable. For the team athlete, expenses such as transportation, room, and board are covered while on the road. It's a different story for a tennis player or golfer. David Falk says, "A few years ago, it probably cost the player $25,000 or $30,000 a year to play the tour.' Ron Bookman of the ATP thinks that that figure is higher now. "It's probably reasonable to assume costs of $1,000 per week to play the tour today,' says Bookman, "because players not only must cover travel costs and living expenses but also maintain their own homes. A few players are fabulously wealthy. Many are just breaking even.'

On the golf tour in 1985, purses totaled nearly $25 million in official prize money. Its distribution, however, is far from equal. The number 1 player in the PGA earned more that $500,000; the 100th player won about $75,000; and the 200th tallied only $6,000. LPGA sponsors a professional tour that in 1986 offered more than $12 million in prize money. The top 10 players earned more than a third of the total. The number 1 earner garnered more than $400,000. The 100th player, who participated in more tournaments than the number 1 money winner, earned only $15,000.

Tennis tells a similar story. By mid-September 1986, the number 1 ranked player was Ivan Lendl, who had earned more than $900,000 in official prize money. The player in slot number 100 earned less than $40,000, not quite enough to cover expenses for a full season. Prize money totaled more than $12 million in women's tennis during 1985. In that year, 25 players earned more than $100,000. The number 1 player, Martina Navratilova, won nearly $2 million; the 50th captured $50,000; number 100 made $25,000; and number 300 earned $5,000.

Another important factor that aspiring pros have to remember is that even if they do make a team, they won't be around for long. The average length of a typical NBA or NFL career is less than 4 years. It's a little longer in Major League Baseball. Ex-Redskin Murphy says that "competition for positions is intensive; and, except for the superstars, it never ends. There is always a younger player ready to take your job. What this means is that football is becoming a year-round job. If you're a marginal player, you had better be in the training room in the off-season, being seen by the coaching staff. Consequently, there's not a lot of time for off-season employment or career preparation. Additionally, the injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent; which means that every player receives at least one injury every season. Any one of those injuries might end your career.'

Players who count on adding to their earnings with advertising contracts are also courting disappointment. Some players earn top dollar in endorsement income. But again, says Falk, "The prospects for endorsement income are generally limited to the stars. There are very few players with the national and international appeal that businesses seek.' Those who do are principally the stars of individual sports, like tennis. Opportunities for team sport players are smaller because their appeal is basically regional. "There are a few exceptions, like a Michael Jordan, but those are very rare,' says Falk.


John Thompson's classroom is McDonough Gymnasium, a small, drafty, 1920's vintage arena, not the homecourt that you'd expect for the college powerhouse Georgetown Hoyas. But then again, this is the rehearsal hall, not center stage; Georgetown University plays its basketball at the Capital Center, a modern complex on the outskirts of Washington.

Thompson is one of the Nation's premier coaches; but, first and foremost, he is a teacher, always questioning his players, urging them to think. In his office at McDonough, he keeps a prop that he uses to teach his most important lesson. It's a deflated basketball.

"This piece of rubber is absolutely useless unless it's filled with air,' Coach Thompson tells his players. "All of you who are planning on going to the NBA better think about that. You're basing your future on 9 pounds of air.' He continues, "If you're lucky, you'll play here at Georgetown. If the luck continues, maybe you'll make the pros and stick around for a year or two. But your working life will last about 40 years. What are you going to do with the rest of your life?'

When the Cheering Stops

The single-minded determination necessary to reach the level of performance required to play in the pros sometimes prevents youngsters from thinking about what they will do with the rest of their lives. And the star treatment accorded to many athletes encourages them not to. Coach Thompson's question is one that many young pros avoid.

"I wear several different hats in my relations with my clients,' says David Falk. "I'm an agent, a financial manager, and also a career counselor. I urge all my clients to experiment in the off-season, to take an internship and gain some real business experience. One thing most young people fail to realize is that professional athletics is a very cold and a very hard business.' How many listen to his advice? "Not very many,' he says.

Jim Johnston tried to spread the same message. A former college coach with a doctorate in education, Johnston is president of Educational Advisory Associates, a Philadelphia-based counseling and consulting firm. In the mid-1970's, Johnston worked with both the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA and the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers to aid players in their postcareer planning. "It was difficult and frustrating. Very few players listened. When you're that young and making that kind of money, it's tough to keep things in perspective. About the only time they were interested was when they were cut or on the trading block.'

The PACE Center for Career Development is a San Diego-based organization that is attempting to get athletes, both professional and amateur, to focus on the future. "Although it may not be easy for people outside sports to understand, the problem is real,' asserts baseball all-star Steve Garvey, cofounder of PACE. "I've seen many players leave the game faced with a myriad of problems because they're simply not prepared for life outside of sports.'

The PACE program is based upon a series of aptitude and vocational assessments that are used to help the athlete plan a career strategy. A trained staff then tries to help the athlete implement it. Nearly 500 athletes have participated in the program.

Ron Stratton, president of PACE, candidly acknowledges that the program is meeting with mixed success. "We want our association with the athlete to be long term; but, frankly, many are not up to the challenge. It can be frustrating.' Equally frustrating to Stratton is the fact that many youngsters today are sacrificing their chances at real education in pursuit of an elusive shot at the pros. He recounts his recent experience at a career night at a local school.

"I found that at least 10 young men had listed their career choice as professional athlete. I could list a thousand and one reasons wny they'd never make it: Your body shape's not right; you have no foot speed; you're too short. It's difficult to get them to listen.'

When he counseled players, Jim Johnston found that, generally, they had an unrealistic idea of what they'd be doing when their playing days were over. Many assumed that success on the field would automatically translate to success off of it.

"Many athletes mentioned going into broadcasting without realizing that it's just as competitive as sports. Another favorite was public relations. I'd ask them what they thought it entailed, and the usual response was making personal appearances and signing autographs. When I mentioned how important writing skills are to the field, most would forget about it.'

Another problem that many athletes experience when entering a post-sports career is that they find themselves years behind their peers. In his book, Spoiled Sport, John Underwood quotes Ron Johnson, an ex-New York Giant, about the former pro's reentry into the working world: "It was a rude awakening. All those skinny little guys with glasses? Always studying? Well, by the time they're 30, they're doctors or lawyers or businessmen and just beginning to cash in on all those years of struggling. But the football player is almost always through by that age and goes from earning maybe a $100,000 a year to maybe nothing.'

Over the Hill at 29

The trauma that athletes experience at the end of their career can be severe. Larry Fleischer of the NBA Players Association says that "for many players, it's the first time they've faced rejection. To be told when you're 28 or 29 years old that you can no longer do what you're best at is painful. I'd say that three-fourths of the players have real trouble adjusting to life out of sports, at least in the first year. After that, it depends upon the individual player.' Phil Chenier's experience is a case in point.

"The first year out of the pros was difficult for me, I can tell you that,' says Chenier. He was an all-star guard with the Washington Bullets. In a 9-year NBA career, he played with and against some of the greats of the game before a back injury brought his career to a close. "The end wasn't anything like I'd imagined. I always thought I would be able to pick the time,' he says. The injury kept him sidelined for a year and a half. He tried a comeback. "Emotionally, I wanted to play more than ever. But my physical skills had grown rusty and that mental toughness, which is so important in the pros, was lacking.' He finally realized that it was truly over.

"It was one of the most difficult times of my life,' he says. Conservative by nature, he had structured his contracts to afford him and his family financial security. But basketball had been the center of his life from boyhood, and now that was gone. When he entered the pros after his sophomore year at the University of California-Berkeley, he was, at 20, the youngest player in the NBA. He had never really thought about what he wanted to do with his life. When his career ended, he was 29 years old.

For nearly 2 years, he drifted. He tried going back to school, but that didn't last long. And he tried a few jobs, but they didn't satisfy him either. He finally found one that he enjoyed, and through which he could make a contribution. Today, Chenier is Director of Youth Programs at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where he tries to give kids the benefit of his hard-won experience. Like Coach Wootten, he emphasizes the importance of balance. "Sports have been very good to me and are, in general, a very positive influence. But if you focus too much on sports, you're cutting out other options. You have to be prepared to compete in life as well as in sports. And that preparation starts early.'

Prepairing for the End From the Start

"It's difficult to feel sorry for pro athletes who find themselves in a predicament at the end of their career when you consider the money some of them make,' says Jim Johnston. "But we have to be concerned about the thousands of kids who never make it to the top.'

It's not news that big-time collegiate athletics frequently conflict with academics. Many student athletes have successful academic careers. Many do not. Many are not academically prepared for college, and even those who are sometimes find it difficult to balance their time between the books and the ball. It's estimated that football players at major NCAA division I schools spend between 45 and 49 hours a week preparing, playing, and recovering from football. Basketball players average a little less. Travel time to and from games might add another 10 hours to the schedule.

These demands undoubtedly contribute to the low graduation rate for scholarship athletes. One study by USA Today found that only about 27 percent of the basketball players on scholarship during a given year eventually earned their degrees. And for those who did, the question must be asked as to how relevant their degrees were. Mark Murphy says that "many players major in staying eligible.'

Back to the Books

One organization is trying to change that and, in the process, get youngsters to realize that a dream career as a professional athlete will likely be just that--a dream.

The Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in Boston, was established at Northeastern University in 1984. The mission of the center, in the words of its founder, Richard Lapchick, is "not only to study sport and its impact on society but also to bring about changes by developing an educated and self-empowered athletic community.'

One vehicle that the center has developed to achieve this aim is a university degree completion program, based upon the double premise of scholarship and community service. Tested at Northeastern, the program would give athletes who had failed to earn their degrees the opportunity to continue their studies. In return, they would participate in an "outreach' program designed to spread the word to youngsters that academics should be their number one priority.

The center devised a 2-credit, 4-part course in communications, writing, financial planning, and computers; it then tested it with a number of players from the NFL's New England Patriots who had not earned their degrees. The initial effort was a success. Upon completion, 10 players enrolled full time at Northeastern. Soon, other Boston-based pro teams, the Red Sox and the Bruins, were participating.

Lapchick writes, "The program did something that we did not foresee.' According to him, most of the players thought that their own academic inadequacy was the reason for their failure to graduate. The believed that they had taken courses in golf and tennis and squash because they weren't up to more academically demanding ones. However, by sharing experiences for the first time, many suddenly recognized that it was the athletic system that prompted them to think about remaining eligible and not about real academic development. This realization lent greater emphasis to the second half of the program--community outreach.

Acknowledging their influence as role models for youth, the athletes realized that they had an important role to play in the program. Keith Lee, formerly a defensive back with the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, is the coordinator of the outreach program in the Boston area. "In the last 2 years, we've spoken to more than 60,000 people, and the response has been fantastic.' Speaking before assemblies of middle school and high school students and parents' groups like the PTA, the athletes "stress the balance between academics and athletics and emphasize that only 1 high school athlete out of 12,000 will play professionally,' says Lee.

For Lee and the other participants in the program, it has been both a rewarding and a humbling experience. "Kids put athletes up on pedestals. From early on, the star treatment of athletes is encouraged. But that treatment evaporates once an athlete's career is over. Many of us let our egos get in the way and allow our self-esteem to be determined by our performance on the field. That's why many athletes have difficulty adjusting,' says Lee.

What began at Northeastern University is spreading across the country. The National Consortium of Colleges and Universities was established in June 1985. At its founding, the consortium comprised 11 members. According to Tom Sanders, the associate director of the center, the number has risen to 21. He adds that the number of universities expressing interest in the program is growing daily, another indication that people are beginning to recognize the importance of preparing college athletes for a career beyond their playing years.

The members of the consortium have agreed to five basic principles; To set academic standards for their own athletes, to readmit former scholarship athletes to earn their degrees, to develop a degree completion program with the members of professional sports teams in the school's metropolitan area, to create an outreach program using pro athletes to encourage young players to strive for excellence in the classroom, and to provide a counseling program to help current and former pro athletes adjust to the classroom. The cost to the player varies, depending upon the team, the school, and even the player's contract. In general, reduced tuition is offered as long as the athlete completes his studies successfully and participates in the outreach program.

A Final Word From the Coach

In every one of his 27 seasons at DeMatha, Coach Morgan Wootten has had duties in the classroom as well as in the gym, teaching world history to the freshman class. During a recent trip to Greece to provide some pointers to the Greek national basketball team, Wootten had a chance to visit some of the places he had read and taught about for the last quarter century.

"I realized that the message that I and many other coaches try to pass to our players is no different from what the Greeks taught centuries ago--the Golden Mean. You have to keep things in perspective, in balance. The commitment, hard work, and sacrifice that make basketball and all other sports so beautiful are the same qualities that will help you all your life. But you have to remember that basketball is just a game.'
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Title Annotation:professional athletes
Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1987
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