November 6, 2014

CHIUSANO | The Lattimore Project

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When Derek Jeter announced his retirement last year, I wrote a column both about him and about my own father, who had decided to retire from teaching around the same time. The year-long Jeter retirement party seems to have finally subsided, and my old man is into his third month away from work and absolutely loving life, as he told me on the phone yesterday in between his journey over the Brooklyn Bridge and visit to the Met.

But news in the sports world in the past few days has gotten me thinking once again about retirement (maybe it’s partially because in about a month I’ll be “retired” from this post at the Sun, or because I’m having anxiety about thinking of getting a real job in another five or six months), and how it isn’t always a walk in Brooklyn Bridge Park — shoutout to my dad, again — for professional athletes.

23-year-old Marcus Lattimore, a running back for the San Francisco 49ers and standout at South Carolina, announced his retirement on Wednesday due to a previous knee injury from which he could never fully recover. Every major sports outlet covered the story, but the New York Times sports section chose to write a story today about a little known Denver Broncos offensive lineman named John Moffitt instead.

Like Lattimore, Moffitt chose to retire from the Broncos at age 27, turning his back on a lucrative contract and career, but also walking away from a sport that can take a critical physical toll on the body. Moffitt was largely respected for his decision, as Lattimore has been this week, but the Times article in large part discussed Moffitt’s post-retirement fall. Though Moffitt worked to continue supporting himself after the NFL, he also turned to drugs and alcohol and a few months after his retirement was found with a gram of cocaine, 10 grams of marijuana and four ecstasy pills, according to the Times.

When the brutally strict regiment of the NFL is no longer present in a player’s life, how easy is it to become victim to this kind of lifestyle of excess? Moffitt has since put his life back together, and looks to be on the right path, but the question still remains for young players like Lattimore. Making the choice to walk away from the NFL takes guts and courage, and I personally respect the hell out of him for it. But at the same time, it’s a troublesome road when something that has consumed your entire life suddenly drops into the abyss.

Lattimore has said he is going back to South Carolina to finish his degree, which, if he follows through on it, is certainly a good first step towards making him employable outside of the professional sports world. An article by Michael Baumann in Grantland titled “The Martyrdom of Marcus Lattimore,” argued, though, that it is the corruption of schools like South Carolina and of the NCAA in general that have put Lattimore in this position in the first place.

Baumann reports that in the NFL Lattimore earned about 2 million dollars from his signing bonus and insurance policy, which is obviously nothing compared to what he could have made over a sustained career. He also writes that while Lattimore was at South Carolina, jerseys with his number on them were being sold for 60 dollars apiece, and something like 1.7 million tickets were being sold to football games in his three years on campus. Lattimore “profited” from this in the form of a three-year scholarship, a serious knee injury and consequently a botched NFL career that could have supported him for the rest of his life. “That’s what college football’s exploitation looks like on a human scale,” Baumann writes.

While Baumann makes a compelling case, deep in my heart I still don’t believe college athletes should be paid. What has happened to Lattimore is tragic. It does not excuse the NCAA for the crimes it is certainly committing, whether they are academic or monetary. But paying college athletes — the large majority of whom will graduate from college without making it to the pros — could lead to the same problems Moffitt faced; a boatload of money, a lot more free time than ever before and the natural temptations of everyday life outside the claustrophobic sports world.

I really and truly feel for Lattimore, in the same way I felt for my dad when he retired, even though he swore he would have no trouble entertaining himself. It’s never easy to break away from a rigid routine and find equally productive things to do that can stimulate both the body and the mind. My dad was lucky enough to find a new routine that satisfied him (although it drives my mom nuts). Moffitt was fortunate enough to be able to turn his life around after making some crucial mistakes. Hopefully Lattimore can learn from someone like Moffitt and prove that he is more than just another sad story of an NFL career cut short much too soon.