SALT LAKE CITY — Le’Veon Bell, the disgruntled running back, threw away $14.5 million this season by refusing to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wants more money, perhaps so he can buy 20 Escalades instead of 18 or four mansions instead of three.
If he wants more money, maybe he shouldn’t have tossed aside that $14.5 million; that’s money he will never recover, no matter how big his next contract. But there is something else that’s even more precious that he lost forever: Time.
Athletes are on the clock in their 20s; their time at the height of their athletic powers is short. Roger Kahn wrote elegantly about the short window of time that an athlete is granted to enjoy the height of his athletic gifts. “The Boys of Summer” chronicles baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, but the following paragraph applies to all athletes.
Unlike most, a ball player must confront two deaths. First, between the ages of thirty and forty he perishes as an athlete. Although he looks trim and feels vigorous and retains unusual coordination, the superlative reflexes, the major league reflexes, pass on. At a point when many of his classmates are newly confident and rising in other fields, he finds that he can no longer hit a very good fastball or reach a grounder four strides to his right. At thirty-five he is experiencing the truth of finality. As his major league career is ending, all things will end. However he sprang, he was always earthbound. Mortality embraces him. The golden age has passed as in a moment. So will all things. So will all moments. Memento mori.
The average age of NFL players is 26. Research indicates that running backs reach peak performance at 27. Bell will be 26 next season. He has thrown away one of his golden years.
It’s the same in all sports. Only 10 men and 10 women have won a Grand Slam tennis event after the age of 30 in the last 50 years. The average age for athletes in the 2016 Summer Olympics was 25.2 for women, 26.2 for men.
Research conducted by the Boston Globe concluded that the prime years for Major League Baseball players is 25-30. Even golfers are not immune in their more sedate sport, with 75 percent of the sport’s Grand Slams being won by players 35 and younger.
All of this seems to escape the notice of many of those most gifted. They think their golden age will endure forever; or at least they behave as if they do. They squander those golden years of their athletic prowess one way or another.
It might be for money. It might be drugs. It might be chronic discontentment. It might be domestic violence. It might simply be boorish behavior and a failure to understand their place in the grand scheme of things, but the end result is that they fail to enjoy and make the most of those precious years.
Terrell Owens spent his entire career so angry and discontented that most remember him more for his behavior than for his exploits on the field, and then later he couldn’t understand why he was denied the Hall of Fame for years. When he finally got the invitation, he boycotted the ceremony. He never did get it.
Odell Beckham is following the same path, angry, childish, petulant, whiny. He’s doomed to repeat Owens’ mistakes.
Karl Malone spent much of his career complaining about contracts and imagined slights; if he wasn’t giving someone the silent treatment, he was doing just the opposite, complaining about, well, we weren’t always certain what was bothering him. He finally figured it out years after he retired, and then he flew to Salt Lake City to apologize to owner Larry Miller while sitting in a parked car.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant made such a nuisance of himself with his off-the-field issues and sideline meltdowns — yelling at teammates and coaches and demanding attention and the ball — that he became persona non grata.
When he didn’t back it up with his play on the field, he was jettisoned and then somehow he was surprised and angered that coaches and teammates wanted him gone. He was still so full of himself that he turned down a $21 million free-agent offer from the Baltimore Ravens. It was only months later that he realized too late how good he had had it and dropped hints that he wanted to return to the Cowboys. Then he signed with the Saints in November — for less money — and tore his Achilles tendon. At 30, his best days are already behind him.
LeBron James has spent most of his career worrying about his “legacy,” and that will be part of his legacy. So will his chronic and classless complaining about teammates and coaches, whom he blamed for shortcomings that he helped create. His mantra: What can you do for me? A great player, he’ll be remembered equally for the permanent scowl on his face and running away from teams that weren’t built to his satisfaction.
For most of his career, Tiger Woods showed up for tournaments acting as if he were being led to his execution, scowling and cold with fans and reporters. Did he ever enjoy any of it? Only in the last couple of years, his game and repute in decline, has he warmed up.8 comments on this story
The list of athletes who squandered their time in the sun is endless. Hoodlum Latrell Sprewell. Grumpy Jay Cutler. Grumpier Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Serial cheater Alex Rodriguez. Irascible Albert Belle.
They think they will always be transcendent on the field, always adored, always in the limelight. But when their skills are gone, when they move on, it’s finished in every way.
Who are you again?
They don’t realize that fans and reporters won’t always be fawning over them, that they won’t always have a free pass through life, that their legs won’t always be lively and light. They fail to enjoy the ride.