When Athletes Don’t Go Pro

when athletes don't go pro
Even at the national champion school, many athletes are headed for a business career rather than a life in professional sports. Photo courtesy of the University of Alabama. 

Athletes who are gifted enough to play competitive sports on the collegiate level usually begin demonstrating their skills around the age of 12 or 13. At that point, in many ways, their life is taken over by others.

Their schedule becomes structured, with a steady routine of practice, workouts and games. They are told what to eat, who to avoid and how to stay on course for a college playing career. Doors are opened, and details are handled by others. The athlete’s primary concern is simply to improve as an athlete.

Then, after about a decade of being under such careful control, their college careers end. They are in their early 20s and for the first time, the vast majority of these athletes find themselves forced to make their own decisions on nearly everything.

Thanks for the blood, sweat and tears. Now good luck in life.

“All of a sudden they’re out on their own, and many of them they don’t know which direction to move in,” says Michelle Keesee, director of Student-Athlete Enhancement at Auburn University.

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In recent years, athletic departments and NCAA conferences have started placing an increased emphasis on professional development. New positions and programs have been created with the primary goal of preparing athletes for a business career after sports.

It certainly makes sense, because only a sliver of the 480,000 students who compete in NCAA sports each year goes on to make a comfortable living as a professional athlete. Several studies have found that between 2% and 3% of college athletes ever play in the pros at all, and less than 1% have long, financially lucrative careers.

Misty Brown discovered the importance of this issue shortly after she was hired to fill the Southeastern Conference’s newly created position of director of student-athlete engagement. One of the first things she did in the role was ask athletes throughout the conference what they needed most, and the overwhelming reply was for help in finding internships and jobs.

In response, the conference began an annual SEC Career Tour, held in conjunction with the SEC football championship game in Atlanta. Athletes from all 14 SEC schools spend three days meeting with officials of companies throughout Atlanta, including Home Depot, UPS, Turner Broadcasting, Cox Communications, Chick-fil-A, and Children’s Healthcare. A virtual tour was held last year because of COVID-19, and future virtual tours are in the works involving companies in Dallas and Orlando.

“Not only have we had some student-athletes hired by these companies, but they all learn a lot just by talking with people from these corporations,” Brown says. “We ask these companies if they have any former student-athletes working there, then we put together a panel to hear firsthand from them about their transition from collegiate athletics to the corporate world.”

The athletic departments at Auburn and at the University of Alabama also have created programs in recent years aimed specifically at career development for student-athletes (AuburnYou and the Crimson Tide DRIVE for Success). Both programs provide a wide variety of instruction and advice, including financial literacy, writing resumes, interview skills, professional etiquette and simply transitioning into a life without sports.

“You don’t want to crush their (professional sports) dreams, but you also want to help them understand that eventually it’s going to end,” says Adora Hicks, coordinator for career and leadership development at Alabama. “Whether it’s in four years, 10 years or 20 years, they’re eventually going to have to hang up playing that sport.”

One of the keys to these programs is the involvement of former athletes. It’s one thing for some corporate executive or university official to talk about the importance of career planning. It’s quite another when the speaker is somebody who knows exactly what the athletes are going through, because they went through the same thing themselves.

Misty Brown

“Utilizing our alumni in our events is impactful, because it gives credibility to the professionals that we’re putting in front of them,” says Jessie Gardner, assistant athletics director overseeing student-athlete enhancement at Alabama. “These are people who have been in their same situation and are now excelling in their career. That tie helps our student-athletes stay motivated as to what their future could potentially look like.”

Keesee says Auburn also uses former university athletes to provide motivational talks for current athletes, as well as offering internships and mentor opportunities.

“About four years ago we started a big outreach to all our athletic alumni to see what professional opportunities they can offer our student-athletes,” Keesee says. “Now we have a network of hundreds throughout industry.”

It can be argued that the entire purpose of college is to prepare all students for a career, so the situation shouldn’t be any different for athletes. But collegiate officials point out that the rigid practice and playing schedule for athletes makes it more difficult for them to have time to attend job fairs and find internships.

In addition, Keesee says such programs are becoming increasingly important for athletic departments to offer in terms of athlete recruitment. She says that instead of parents asking about things like playing time and workout facilities, many of them are more concerned about career preparation.

“Our coaches have said that recruiting has changed a lot just in the last 10 years,” Keesee says. “Parents are asking what we’re going to do to help their child develop professionally, so that they’re ready to enter the world when they get done with sports.”

“So, it’s really important nowadays to be able to show what your department and what the school can do for these kids not just athletically, but also professionally. That’s where a lot of this programming was born.”

Brown says she has noticed this shift from her role with the SEC. “There’s always been a university side of career development,” she says. “But within athletics, many campuses have started programs that specialize in student-athlete career development. Preparing them to graduate and be leaders, whether that’s in a pro sports organization or with a company.”

Because the harsh reality is, the uniform eventually will be put away and the cheering will stop. At which point, there is still a long life ahead to be lived.

“While the student-athletes are here, you at least want to drop that nugget and start having those conversations with them,” Hicks says. “They don’t have to hold off on Plan A, to play professionally. But I want them to think about that Plan B as well.”

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