After the draft, feeling a big chill

Elite college athletes shape their life around the game. What happens when it comes to an end?

By GORDON MARINO Special to the Times
Published May 6, 2007

From beer commercials to graduation talks, it's evident that Americans are fundamentalists when it comes to having a personal dream.

We are taught that everyone must have a vision of some future self they can churn toward. The sports dream is, of course, one that many kids and their parents commonly find in their pillows. After all, success on the diamond, hardwood and gridiron can produce upward mobility at warp speed. But last week was NFL draft time, and you can be sure that a lot of players awoke rudely from their sports dreams.

Most big-time college athletes have their sense of identity sunk in their sport. When your art requires almost constant attention, it is difficult to develop serious alternative interests and sources of identity. You are what you play, and it is difficult to get an education.

With all the traveling, athletes can legitimately miss almost as many classes as they attend. Even when they show up to the lecture hall, they often find it nearly impossible to pull their attention back from the upcoming practice or from worrying about whether or not they are going to get any playing time on Saturday. One can only imagine the distraction of basketball players such as Kevin Durant (Texas) and Greg Oden (Ohio State) who would have otherwise entered the draft from high school, but with the new one-year rule elected to park in college for two semesters before graduating to the NBA.

The trek to the elite levels of sport usually requires an extraordinary level of commitment and focus. Practices, games, tournaments and summer camps become the organizing motif in many families. When I was an assistant football coach at small Midwestern college, one of our running backs came to tell me he was quitting the game. It was, he said, "the hardest decision in his life." At the end of our discussion, he sighed, "I'm afraid now that my dad and I just won't have anything to talk about anymore. Football has been it for us."

By college, some athletes come to feel that they just can't afford not to make it anymore. And after putting all their ego eggs in the sport basket they can become psychological and sometimes moral desperados when their name is not called out by the pros. I ought to know.

As a young man and college player, I was locked so thoroughly on to my football fantasies that I paid little attention to the war in Vietnam, beyond the fact that it had the potential to disrupt my gridiron plans. Of course, my coaches applauded that focus, when in fact they should have grabbed me by my face mask and demanded that I get a life or rather get involved in something outside of football.

One of the coaches confided that he thought I had a shot at the pros, but then I blew out my shoulder. And it was over.

When the gates to the future I had banked upon had been locked, the pain and feeling of emptiness were so profound that I was on emotionally injured reserve for a year. And I was not alone. Only one of my teammates made it to the big time. When the writing became clear on the chalkboard, many of my fellow players medicated themselves for a terrible sense of loss and emptiness that they could barely acknowledge. Some dropped out before they got their degree.

Though graduation rates are up somewhat for athletes today (54 percent in football and 44 percent in basketball), there are Division I basketball teams that do not graduate a single player over the six-year period the Department of Education uses for tracking purposes. But what happens to the point guard who fails to live his hoop dreams? What happens when the one area in your life in which you felt competent is suddenly gone?

Americans, of course, bear an ambivalent relationship to athletes. On the one hand, we worship them. Yet on the other, we tend to feel that they have been blessed, and perhaps are even slightly envious of the fact that they are such big shots and make their play their work. In the end, we are not necessarily disposed to shed many tears over the defensive end who has a full scholarship and still manages to miss tackling the task of getting a college education.

But we ought to soften our stance. More than a few young men are being chewed up and spit out by the sports version of American Idol. The remedy is not just a matter of harping on the long odds of making it to the pros. Every high school athletic director recites that mantra and yet at same time we preach to our young people to forget the statistics, develop a dream, and go for it. These are mixed and confusing messages.

Universities choosing to invest their energies in making it to bowl games ought to dedicate more of their resources to providing support for the sports virtuosi who are going to have to make that difficult transition out of their physical arts. Athletes in marquee programs are defended by a phalanx of academic tutors. Counselors ought to be added to that support brigade. They could check in with linebackers whose phones did not ring last week, and help them talk about and cope with the tsunami of emotions surrounding the painful passage from the playing fields to Main Street.

Gordon Marino, 54, is a professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at the University of Florida. He teaches sport ethics.