Sporting careers by their very nature are generally short-lived. The incredibly physical nature of various games often forces athletes into retirement much earlier than traditional careers. Unless you’re looking at golf, you will rarely see a player maintain peak performance, or any performance, into their sixties. Roger Federer seems to be the exception to the rule with his ability to remain at his very best at the ripe old age of 38, reaching this year’s Wimbledon final. However, when sports stars leave their game of choice, many turn to a different sport; either wanting to stay in the spotlight or simply left with no other options. But is it a viable strategy, or are there no more possibilities for a life after sports?
There are a plethora of people who have attempted to change from one sport to another with little to no success. Usain Bolt had a trial for a soccer contract that went nowhere and most recently, Christian Wade was released by the Buffalo Bills after two matches. It is an outcome that makes sense. After spending all their prime years mastering one sport, becoming an expert in the rules and understanding the game on an intuitive level, how could someone swap to an entirely new sport and hope to succeed? Boxing is a popular choice for athletes looking for another crack at the whip. Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand attempted this at the age of 38, but he was not granted a professional licence by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) due to both his age and total absence of boxing experience.
Another factor could be that cricketer Freddie Flintoff had been granted a licence a few years previously, a decision for which the BBBoC received much criticism. Flintoff’s boxing debut would be his only foray into the ring as his clash with other novice, Richard Dawson, was a total farce. The bout only lasted four two-minute rounds and despite being knocked onto the canvas by Dawson, Flintoff managed to eke out a points victory. Facing derision from many other fighters about the quality of the match, Flintoff left boxing and later said that fighting in the ring was probably a stupid decision.
“There are a plethora of people who have attempted to change from one sport to another with little to no success”
One of the most famous incidents of sport switching was when His Airness, Michael Jordan, retired from the NBA to take up baseball. Jordan had always loved baseball, having played all the way through high school. When he left the Chicago Bulls in 1993, he announced his intent to try his hand at achieving his childhood dream of a professional baseball career. Originally, he had his eyes set on the major leagues but eventually he settled for a shot in the minor leagues. He joined the Chicago White Sox at the age of 31, 13 years since he had last swung a bat, and was sent to their Double A class team (the second highest in the minor leagues). While he didn’t totally embarrass himself during his time at home plate, Jordan struggled with striking the ball and after 13 months, he left the team. A week after he left the White Sox, he went back to basketball to see out his professional career.
Not every instance of an athlete trying to have two sporting careers is a flop. Bo Jackson is one such story, maintaining successful baseball and American football careers at the same time. Playing for the Kansas City Royals from 1986-90, Jackson was hyped as one of the best athletes in America. In 1989, he was listed as an MLB All Star and during his All Star match won most valuable player (MVP) for both his offensive and defensive contributions in an incredible fixture which saw him hit a remarkable 448ft home run with his first strike at the ball. However, not content to dominate the diamond field, Jackson was determined to dual specialise as he had in college, playing both baseball and American football. In 1987, he joined the Los Angeles Raiders, agreeing to play during the baseball off-season. Jackson played significantly less football, but still managed to shine in the NFL, scoring six touchdowns in his rookie season in only seven games. In 1989, he was named as an NFL All Star by featuring in the Pro Bowl fixture. He is the only person ever to be both a MLB and NFL All Star.
But why do athletes feel the need to finish one sport and dive right into another? For a lot of them, sport is the only thing they have ever known. Many athletes across the world are forced to prioritise their sporting training over education. The American collegiate sports culture is infamous for the way it treats its students, with student athletes receiving no money for their training despite making billions of dollars for colleges and companies every year, particularly through college football and basketball. They must play sports to secure their scholarship to college, and must pass their courses to be allowed to play sports; it’s a vicious cycle. This takes an incredible toll on players and inevitably many leave college with no real qualifications as their degrees are centred around simply passing the course, not aimed towards the future. The situation is certainly less exploitative in Europe, but definitely not perfect. In 2015, Duncan Watmore became only the second player in the history of the Premier League to have a first class degree.
“They have to play sports to secure their scholarship to college, and must pass their courses to be allowed to play sports; it’s a vicious cycle”
Luckily, there are now many more opportunities available with regards to part-time education or even for returning to college after a sporting career. Some colleges allow student athletes to study part-time, doubling the length of their course, but ensuring they get a full education without risking their physical and mental well-being. Recently, a law was passed in California that will allow student athletes to earn money for their work from 2023. As well as this, the explosion of social media means that things like punditry and analysis are easier than ever before, meaning ex-players can make money through presenting jobs or by starting their own podcasts, monetising the experience they have garnered over their extensive career.
We love to look up to sporting giants. Heroes of their arena who dominate their game with ease and inspire young people around the world to try their hand at a sport. Who doesn’t want to be “Like Mike”? And while the number of barriers between athletes and a life after sports are decreasing, they are still present and are unlikely to change without significant pressure. Now might be the time for fans to look after their heroes as well as look up to them.