‘Professional athletes are mayflies’

What kind of player do you want to be even after you retire, asks NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It is a question every professional should ask himself.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who retired at 42, is an activist fighting for social equity for marginalised people.   -  AP

Mayflies are known for two things. Their very short lifespans and their spending most of that time mating. So when the NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says “Professional athletes are mayflies,” it is easy to assume that he is speaking of both these aspects. But the point he makes is more serious and relevant, and not one that former stars are known to dwell on.

Writing in The Guardian, Jabbar says that the average playing career in the NFL is 3.3 years, the NBA and NHL five years, and more startlingly, that 78 percent of those NFL players go broke within three years of retirement. Professional sportsmen in India might have somewhat longer active careers without making the same amount of money, but it would be interesting to read the result of similar surveys here. What is the future for a first-class cricketer who has not played either international cricket or in the IPL?

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“Ageing, for an athlete,” writes Jabbar, “is a betrayal.” The body and mind do not work in harmony any more, and it is time for compromises. Physical compromises are one thing, and necessary too. You can’t run as fast or recover as quickly as you once could; that is in the nature of who we are. But there are other compromises that could ruin the sportsman’s legacy.

The word ‘player’ can take on two meanings, one important in the early years, and the other vital in the later when questions of legacy occupy the mind. Lessons learnt through the two phases determine what a sportsman will be remembered for. As Jabbar says, “some of those lessons are about playing, some about being a player — two very different things.”

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Most sportsmen, especially in India, interviewed towards the end of their careers speak of “giving something back to the game.” It has become a cliche. What many of them mean by this is: “I hope I can cling on in some capacity — as coach or commentator or selector or administrator.” Giving back to the game in such cases is merely incidental, it is in practical terms taking something more from the game.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. Stars who have not minded getting their hands dirty while working on the future of their sport as coaches or mentors. In any case, there is something admirable about a former star standing for elections to a State or national association, putting himself up for criticism when he does not really need the hassle.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who retired at 42, is an activist fighting for social equity for marginalised people. What kind of player do you want to be even after you retire, he asks. It is a question every professional should ask himself. There are no easy answers nor are there any convenient shortcuts. The first part of a professional’s life may be devoted to training and competition, tournaments and endorsements. That’s when the statistics and records are established. But impressive as these might be, should that be all?