The statistics are staggering. According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, 78% of National Football League (NFL) players are either bankrupt or are under financial stress within two years of retirement and an estimated 60% of National Basketball Association (NBA) players go bankrupt within five years after leaving their sport. While many of these numbers have been disputed and minimized, the facts still clearly show a large number of formerly elite athletes struggle after their careers. They struggle with the day to day, with divorce, with finding other employment, with finding meaning in their lives.
The statistics between these former marquis athletes and veterans is eerie. Like the athletes, many veterans were the cream of the crop (Just don’t ask Salon or the NYT). They endured challenging training, acquired skills that few in the world have, and served honorably in tough jobs. Unlike much of society–but similar to star athletes–veterans excelled at working with an extremely diverse work force under stressful conditions, and found ways to win when they should not have succeeded.
Veterans and former athletes definitely have one thing in common–a lack of a team. That missing element is what leaves so many of them wondering who they support, why they are there, and what the purpose is in their life.
From the moment I put on a uniform as a child, I loved being part of a team. I loved having others count on me, the pressure to excel and the feeling of doing something great with my team. I never amounted to much of an athlete, but team sports taught me the value of the team, and the important role it plays in getting the most out of all of us.
I moved on to the military at 18, and the feeling of team grew even stronger. I went through basic training with people I would have never sought out in regular life, but for whom I would have taken a bullet if need be. We developed a bond through retarded drills, stressful situations and tests, and shared experiences that will forever hold my Beast mates close to my heart. When one of us did push ups, we all did push ups. When one of us marched, we all marched. When one of us was wrong and berated for it, we were all wrong and berated for it. And I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything in the world. The same feelings have held true time and again through the different organizations where I served during the next 30 years. Called flights, squadrons, divisions, sections, groups, they were all the same. They were all my teams, and each one holds special meaning to me. Like that college athlete who doesn’t want to let go of that feeling that came on that special championship night, the team was–and is–everything.
When I transitioned to retired life, I loved the freedom, change of pace, and the time with family and friends. My family, more than ever before, has become my team, my comfort zone, and where I belong to do good in the world. But the transition was not as easy as I expected. It is hard to do something for 60+ hours a week for well over two decades with some of the best people you’ve ever met, then suddenly stop completely. The team moves on, acquires new talent, and you are left standing there wondering what is next.
Daily, former athletes and veterans are found asking themselves those exact questions. The vast majority do well and move on to the next phase of their lives, but too many struggle with their role, their place, and that missing sense of belonging. As a society, we provide job training, offer financial incentives to help them move on, and give them both pats on the back for a job well done, but often that misses the mark. These individuals have plenty of skill, great adaptability, and a personal drive that is often higher than your average American. What they need is mission, team, teammates, and value resembling what it felt like as a member of a football team, squad, squadron, platoon, or section.
In a society that increasingly divides itself over political opinions, color, religious beliefs and car makes, the need for ‘team’ is ever stronger. Our willingness to divide makes the transition much more difficult for people trying to find that ‘team’. We don’t need tribes, but teams. Tribes are packs of look-alikes, think-alikes, act-alikes. We need act-in-harmony, move-with-a-purpose, and common goals that will give veterans and former sports team members a role, a place to belong and a sense of purpose that only a team can provide.