Terrell Owens recently claimed in an GQ interview that he is “friendless, broke, and living in hell.” Assuming Owens is being truthful (and it’s understandable if you don’t believe him after witnessing all the drama around Owens throughout his football career), he appears to be in big trouble as he retires from professional sports. Sadly, this type of sport retirement reaction is not uncommon for athletes, although you typically only hear of it when it happens to famous athletes (like Owens).
Some fans might think this is fitting for Owens, as he was easily one of the most obnoxious and narcissistic athletes to ever play professional sports. It was also reported that Owens has been behind on his child support payments for his kids, even though he made tens of millions of dollars while playing — yet another reason to not have much sympathy for Owens. Still, even many of TO’s harshest critics, including ESPN personality Skip Bayless, are showing sincere concern about Terrell Owens mental health.
These Troubles are not Unique to Owens
It is very common for athletes to experience confusion about their personal identity at the ends of their careers, and re-adjusting to their new identity in society can be quite challenging. After retiring from sports the big paydays go away, as do most of the fans and social support system. In Owens case, transitioning from “TO” the football icon to Terrell Owens, public citizen, appears to be destroying his post-sports life.
T.O. is on the brink of self-destruction, and he desperately needs immediate professional attention. The sport retirement transition can be lonely and isolating, and without a support network of caring people around to help, it can be a life-threatening transition. Many athletes struggle coping and turn to drinking, drugs, risky behaviors – and even suicide. Owens fits the prototype of an at-risk athlete, and his latest confessions provide even more evidence of just how confused he is today.
Unfortunately, stories like T.O.’s are not unique to just “big-ego” athletes, or even professional athletes — there are tens of thousands of college and high school athletes each year who experience the same loss of identity, role confusion, and depression commonly associated with the end of a sports career. It’s easy to see why when you think about it – young athletes these days often specialize in one sport early in life, and sometimes play that sport year-round with few breaks. As a result, they essentially become an athlete by developing an exclusive self athletic identity, as well an exclusive athletic social identity (how others view them). When this identity ends (sport retirement), it is often an abrupt change that was not welcomed or prepared for by the athlete.
Why Sport Retirement can be so Difficult
One of the best ways for athletes to cope with sport retirement is to use their support system, but in most cases their support system quickly disappears. Since the athlete is no longer part of the team, hanging out with players becomes difficult (if not impossible), and fans lose their interest with the athlete’s fleeting fame. Some athletes prepare ahead of time for their inevitable sport retirement, while others only begin to deal with transition when it eventually happens.
Examining Owens, the hope is that he seeks professional sport psychology assistance and commits to working hard on his post-athletic career. If he does this, he will likely find happiness and success after the NFL. I say this as he appears to be a bright guy, has an unbelievable work ethic, and his worldwide visibility will always command attention (and opportunities) in the future.
If you know an athlete facing sport retirement, check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes!