The forgotten ones
Many athletes experience financial hardship after retirement

Garfield Robinson's excellent piece on Patrick Patterson in the Jamaica Observer on January 6, 2022 left me nostalgic as I recalled the halcyon days of West Indies cricket.

It also left me sad.

In fact, similar reports have left me in despair on several occasions over the past months. During that time, the public became aware of former sportsmen who represented this country but have fallen on hard times and were living in horrible conditions until a few friends and Food For the Poor came to the rescue.

Many wonder how life could take such an unpleasant turn for these individuals, but this is not as unusual as one might think.

Sports Illustrated once estimated that 78 per cent of National Football League (NFL) players file for bankruptcy or are broke within two years of retiring and, after five years of retirement, 60 per cent of National Basketball Association (NBA) players suffer the same fate. And, according to a 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, close to 16 per cent of NFL players file for bankruptcy within just 12 years of retirement.

Famous examples include boxer Mike Tyson, who earned about US$400 million, but lost it all, mostly on wild parties, jewellery, and Siberian tigers. Another boxer, Floyd Mayweather, could earn US$200 million for one fight. He is now scrambling to work out a deal with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to pay back taxes. Then, when I heard that Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield bought a 109-room mansion for US$10 million, I kept asking myself, “How many kids does this guy have?” Well, it was soon repossessed by the bank and put on the market for half the purchase price.

Denis Rodman and Michael Jordan played for the same team while at the top of their game. That was one of the most successful teams in basketball history. Today, Rodman is broke and Jordan has a net worth of US$2.1 billion.

In our case, most of the people who are now in this position represented Jamaica but received little or nothing from the Government. Cricketers have mostly English county cricket to thank for what they have. Footballers — just a few — were able to pick up minor contracts abroad, and it is only in recent times that our athletes are making some money. Again, the bulk of their earnings is from endorsements and not from the Government. And, even among this new set of millionaires, much of their earnings is rapidly melting into the exhaust pipes of luxury vehicles. You can tell who they are, the arrogant ones.

Most of those that are suffering now, however, were active before the 1980s. They have a few things in common.

Yellow Man puts it best in relating his own life story. “When mi born, my mada tek one look pa mi and abandon mi. Mi box bout from one children's home to the next. So mi decide fi do some singing. A when me buss out that me realise seh mi have relative. Nuff a dem — and fren.”

As soon as many of these sportsmen and sportswomen became popular, everywhere they went they bumped into the outstretched hands — with the palms up — of a host of relatives and friends, most of them new.

Some of the most gut-wrenching cases are of people who entrusted what they had to relatives who immediately ignored the informal agreements they made.

In one case, the sportsman ended up eating from garbage bins in the Cross Roads area. The last time I saw him it was a sickening experience. He looked as if he was in a motor cycle crash. I learnt later that his injuries were the result of a severe beating he received at the hands of a motorist when he laid his hands on that man's high-end vehicle begging for food. Many may not understand when I say that news of his death brought a sense of relief to me — relief because his daily suffering had come to an end.

In another case, I confronted one who was rarely seen in public and told him that I could tell all was not well with him. He broke down while recounting the series of circumstances that brought him to a place where he was hiding from the public, not because of anything he had done, but because he was ashamed of his living conditions. I invited him to have breakfast at my house. He did for several months then stopped, and I never saw him again.

It was at his funeral that I learnt my domestic staff had issued him an ultimatum: “Don't come back unless you have a bath first.” They, like so many others, would not have known that for a homeless person taking a bath can present one with considerable challenges.

Until recently I had a friend in an inner-city community. In my days as a young researcher she took me under her wings and protected me like a hawk. Those were dangerous, violent days. She had a son who later represented this country. He plied his trade outside of Jamaica and sent all his earnings back to his wife with instructions to purchase a house.

Thinking that he had enough accumulated at home, he returned, only to discover that his wife had other ideas that did not include him. His mental deterioration was rapid. And severe.

His mother took him back into her inner-city home and he was always clean and well fed. But she was very old and unemployed for many years. Her sight was also going. No one can challenge the accuracy of my claims because I was the one who met her on Saturday mornings with a bag of basic items. She died a few months ago and I worry about the fate of this man.

It is remarkable how quickly and completely we forget the people who brought pride and joy to us when they were at the top of their game. It is as if they never existed. Psychologists tell me that the mental adjustment required to deal with being cheered today and ignored tomorrow is more than most humans can bear.

I met the wife of one of our heroes of yesteryear some years ago. I asked if he was still in Jamaica as no one seems to have heard of him in a long time. She said he never left, but he was at home suffering from severe depression which, she claims, is a result of the fact that what he expected from his Government and countrymen was never forthcoming. He is no longer with us.

It is my position that anyone who dons the black, green, and gold for this country should be assured of a basic safety net that would shield them certain indignities like homelessness and illness. The extent of this problem is not well known, partly because we only recognise our own when they hit the tape first and completely forget them the moment that stops.

Additionally, many of those in need are absolutely terrified at the prospect of the public being aware of their conditions. They need help, but they do not want public pity and private speculation by the public.

Why have so many of our sportsmen — some of whom were well off — found themselves broke? What can we learn about their fall from financial grace? Most started to earn when they were young and financially immature. Requests from family and friends — people they could not say no to, came thick and fast.

They did not have the guidance to recognise that sportsmen have a very short earning window which they must stretch out over a lifetime. Extravagant spending and lack of financial knowledge and planning is how some of the most iconic sportsmen and sportswomen have ended up broke.

I urge players' representatives, clubs, retired sportspeople, and the Government to come together and formulate a policy that guarantees some basic assistance to our former athletes. The need is greater than we think.

Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or glenntucker2011@gmail.com

Glenn Tucker
Glenn Tucker

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