We keep wanting new athletes to rival past greatness. The evolution of sports science, combined with a considerable rise in athlete’s compensation, leads one to believe we will never see long, storied careers ever again. The great athletes of prior generations will never be rivaled.
Take science for instance. The most obvious is concussions and the NFL. We now have considerable information about this particular injury. This has frightened most athletes, and changed their mentalities. The old adage was to suck it up, and continue playing. The new thinking is your days are numbered based on the number of concussions you get. But, concussions are not the only thing we see taking athletes away from their sports earlier than normal.
There has been an evolution in science when understanding the time an athlete should sit out because of a particular injury. Think arm injuries in baseball, or tendon tears in basketball. These derail athletes for over a year, but the reason they sit out longer is to ensure the ligaments heal 100%. Science has taught us this. This shortens the time an athlete will spend competing and therefore, it makes their time in the respective league shorter than in the past. This will make breaking records of prior great athletes considerably more difficult.
The other reason athletes sit longer from injuries is because of money. Rushing back elevates the chance of re-injury, and while this may help the team and one’s reputation, it will certainly increase the odds of an early retirement. This means less money while working, and therefore, a financial strain on one’s life after sports. Athletes have become smarter and understand this. This doesn’t diminish the fight or grit of an athlete in today’s leagues, but it does mean we are likely going to see less iconic moments of athletes battling injury like we did in prior generations.
The monetary concept takes us to the final point. There are a few factors here. One, athletes are making more money than ever before. This is because of renewed TV contracts that has poured massive amounts of money into the leagues. The ability of nearly everyone to watch sports from their phone has made sports a household item in anyone’s life. This has increased compensation, and subsequently allows athletes to retire from the game sooner rather than later. They have made enough money.
Mass transmittal of information has also allowed for athletes to avoid pitfalls that many made in the past with regard to handling of their money. We know a lot of stories of athletes that go bankrupt after they leave the league because they mismanaged their investments. These stories, combined with an easier path to investing because of technology, have allowed athletes to make the most of the money they earn in the league they represent.
Finally, the increase in popularity of sports in general has propelled tons of athletes to become names that are easily recognizable. These athletes have become their own brand, and with social media, they can easily quantify their worth, and begin to profit from their reputation. This means that an athlete today doesn’t have to rely on the team they play for, or the league they represent for all of their compensation. Endorsement deals, as well as their own ability to self market have increased their earnings potential tenfold. Also, the visibility of athletes has made more of them popular than in years past. This means it won’t only be one or two athletes retiring that have a chance at stardom after they leave the sport. Many are popular in their own spheres of influence and can take on lucrative contracts in entertainment after they hang it up.
The problem is dominance and greatness in sports go together. They are combined with time spent in the league. This results in an athlete we come to idolize as a legend of the game. The particular player will likely shatter a ton of records, and probably win some championships. This is how we have always quantified athletes of the past. Well, because of the aforementioned things occurring in the sports world, we will likely need to reassess how we judge these athletes. We cannot expect to have warriors play endless seasons, win numerous titles, and break a countless list of records.
Hall of Fame players won’t look the same going forward. They’ll be remembered for what they did in a shorter time period, and the question will almost always be asked, what if they played a few more seasons? How many more rings would they have? How many more records could they have broken? Would they have been better than an athlete of the past who many regard as a legend of the sport? The likelihood we see any athlete like this again is all but gone.