Walk Away, and We All Get Ahead

Much has been made in the last couple of days about Adam LaRoche quitting baseball because the White Sox won’t let his son chillax in the clubhouse like he’s the equipment manager’s personal valet.

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Frankly, I love this story. Because kids should always be allowed in the clubhouse where their parents work? Hell, no. I happen to work in an office where one employee brings her daughter to work. Not just once on a special, designated day; that kid spends much of each Summer hanging around that office when she’s not in school. It’s more like “Bring Your Daughter to Work” season, and, frankly, it’s a pain in the ass. Everyone else in the room has to be cognizant of the kid in our midst–which can be an issue where adults are trying to get a job done under deadline pressure, especially when things go wrong. Someone’s kid does not belong in a place where grown-ups are trying to do their jobs.

The DFR: BaseballAccordingly, the White Sox were correct in asking LaRoche to send his kid home once in a while, where presumably he could do homework or take the trash out or find something to do.

So why then is the senior LaRoche’s stand so welcome? Because, while it may be just one odd instance of a pro athlete going in his own direction, I suspect there might be something deeper going on there. LaRoche’s decision may just represent a further reshaping of the minds–particularly, the priorities–of today’s athletes, a reshaping process could very well have great benefits for the entire arena of pro sports.

 “…this apparent shift in athletes’ priorities, if real, holds a tremendous amount of promise to reshape the future of pro sports.”

LaRoche’s stand for familial unity comes on the heels of other athletes walking away–not being forced away–from their careers. Green Bay’s B.J. Raji is “going on hiatus” from the NFL. Before that we saw Chris Borland of the 49ers walk away from his promising career out of fear of injury. So did Borland’s former teammate Anthony Davis. Even Peyton Manning, it could be argued, stepped off the stage when there were still games left that he could play, because other concerns loomed larger than winning one more game.

What’s going on here? This trend–if a trend it truly is–may represent a reorientation of the way that athletes prioritize their sports, their lives, and–this could be the really big thing–the money they make from the games they play.

Pro sports salaries have exploded in the last twenty-plus years. Athletes who have succeeded in signing strong contracts–particularly the ones who get guaranteed money, mostly in baseball and basketball–can secure their futures (even their children’s futures) in a relatively short playing career. And then they have options–including walking away.

Think about it: if you had $10 million in the bank, would you keep working at your job, even if you did something you really liked? For most of us, that answer is almost certainly, “No.” Even if you really loved your vocation, would you continue to do it professionally if your financial future was secure? Especially if doing so came with a certain risk of injury, possibly permanent injury? Chances are, you’d explore your options once the bank account reached eight digits.

The hurricane of cash blowing through pro sports came with some expectations that athletes would start playing shorter careers, but till now that expectation was never really met. Indeed, the money has been so obscene that athletes seemed to have more trouble walking away. The ability to earn two, or five, or twenty-five million dollars simply by playing one more season of the sport you’ve loved since you were a kid was, generally speaking, an offer most athletes couldn’t refuse. And for a long while, medical science was extending careers, with better treatments making career-ending injuries largely a thing of the past–until the deeper research began. Mostly, the last two decades have seen lengthening careers during the sports world’s windfall days.

But now the tide seems to be turning. The stakes have been raised with the ever-expanding knowledge about the physical cost of playing pro sports. No wonder guys like Borland and Raji are choosing to stop playing if they feel anything less than 100% commitment to suiting up. It’s becoming an ever more rational choice to walk away with some money in the bank and the body still intact.

Then again, perhaps LaRoche represents something above and beyond the desire to preserve life and limb. LaRoche’s decision may signal a new reality where athletes start viewing their time in their sport as just one facet of their much larger lives–one that merits less priority than other, more important and lasting aspects of their time on earth.

LaRoche’s insistence on having his son with him at all times is a far cry from back in the day, when stories of the pro sports world mostly involved jocks partying on the road for half the year while the wives and kids spent their days in some far-off, comfortable suburban home, out of sight if not largely forgotten. It was way more North Dallas Forty and Major League than…than whatever movie represents LaRoche’s stand. It’s probably still like that for younger players, before they marry and have kids and reach the “settle down” days. But those “settle down” days may come earlier for more and more athletes, especially when lifetime financial goals can be met well before the age of thirty. Making a lot of bank in a few years then moving on with the rest of one’s life seems like a pretty decent plan.

So the athletes themselves, and their families, can benefit from this reshaping of priorities. But what makes this trend so great is the potential it has to benefit us sports fans, too. Consider the possibilities:

If more athletes leave the game younger, the games won’t end–you’ll just see infusions of fresh blood livening up the games. For all the moaning and groaning we hear when some great athlete retires, the sports are reinvigorated by the emergence of new stars, not just by hanging on to the old ones.

  • Peyton Manning stepping aside leaves the stage open for some other quarterback to stake his claim to stardom.
  • The San Francisco Giants held onto Barry Bonds for years beyond his useful life, on the theory that they needed him for his gate appeal. Within two years of finally showing Bonds the door, the Giants won the World Series–largely behind new stars Buster Posey and Tim Lincecum–and have never been more popular in the Bay Area.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers are a shell of their former selves, largely because they’ve been dragging the corpse of Kobe Bryant around after them for over two years. Meanwhile, four hundred miles to the north, a new star has emerged and set the basketball world on its head, in championship-winning, record-breaking fashion.

If more players leave their sports sooner rather than later, we’ll get more churn in the ranks, and more movement among the winners and the losers in the leagues. This would be especially good news for perennial doormats. Look at the Warriors; long-time losers are most likely to pull out of their ruts by the emergence of new stars like Stephen Curry. It happened in Pittsburgh as well with the Pirates and Andrew McCutcheon. More players entering and exiting the field of play promises to shake up the standings and create more competitive balance. Remember, too: a few years ago, no new players would have meant no Mike Trout or Bryce Harper.

A change towards shorter athletes’ careers could also help ease the upward pressure on salaries. Back in the ’90s, salaries got out of whack largely because of the demands of coveted young players, especially high draft picks. Then collective bargaining agreements reigned in rookie and other young players’ salaries; today much of the upward pressure on payroll comes from older players. But if there are fewer older players, due to more veterans walking away earlier, that pressure will decrease. That could be a blessing for struggling franchises in all of the major sports, making it easier to compete without inking bank-breaking contracts. (It might also ease the bottom line and help franchises hold down ticket, concession and merchandise prices–though, more likely, those will continue to be determined by plain greed.)

There’s always danger in trying to read greater trends in a few isolated incidents, but this apparent shift in athletes’ priorities, if real, holds a tremendous amount of promise to reshape the future of pro sports. It’s about time that athletes realize, before someone has to “tear the uniform off” them, that life holds more promise than one more march towards the playoffs. If more and more pros have that epiphany, it could ultimately work to the benefit of all of us.


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