When Scott Tinley retired, he was still a young man. After nearly two decades of competing as a world-class triathlete, he found himself lost and depressed. Now, years later, after discovering a new career in academia, he has devoted much of his time to helping former athletes make the retirement transition.
“I was really struck by the effect retirement had on me,” said Tinley, a two-time Ironman world champion. “My own way of healing came from exploring the subject from an academic standpoint.”
Tinley founded the Institute for Athletes in Retirement and Transition, a group based at San Diego State University and designed to help former college and pro athletes move from athletic competition to the next phase of their lives. The institute is hosting a conference this weekend with panels led by former athletes, including Olympic gold medal hurdler Roger Kingdom and NFL linebacker-turned-broadcaster Jim Laslavic. More than 20 researchers will present findings on the topic.
While the issue of athletes transitioning into the “real world” is not new, the conference appears to have great relevance now given the back-and-forth nature of quarterback Brett Favre’s retirement from the NFL. After calling it quits from a long career with the Green Bay Packers only to return for one more season with the New York Jets, Favre is a prime example of an athlete who has struggled with the notion of stepping away from professional sports for good.
But Tinley said there must be a growing acceptance among teams, fans and the media that most athletes will find retirement to be challenging.
“There’s been a disservice to him in the mainstream press,” Tinley said. “Maybe he doesn’t really know what he wants to do yet, and maybe that’s OK. We should give him the chance, and the league and its media partners should say, ‘Whatever you want to do is OK.’
“He’s been in this bubble for, what, 15 years? How can we expect him to know who he is and what he wants to be? He’s only thought of himself as a football player. Now he’s supposed to instantly think of himself as a business person, a farmer, a family guy?”
In 2003, while pursuing his master’s degree, Tinley published a thesis on athletes and their retirement experiences. He theorized that every athlete deals with the transition differently but concluded that athletes do not receive enough psychological help or assistance in career planning.
Tinley said he often refers to Cal Ripken Jr. as the model of how athletes can retire and remain happy. The Hall of Fame shortstop stopped playing in 2001 but quickly achieved success as a businessman and baseball ambassador. Tinley wrote about Ripken’s experience in his book, “Racing the Sunset.”
“He recognized the scenario early on,” Tinley said. “He said, ‘Look, 10 years before I retired I thought about, what has baseball provided me and how can I duplicate that in my life after sport?’ But he is very much the exception.”
Working against athletes, Tinley said, is a reluctance by teams to suggest thinking about the future.
“It’s all about next inning, next quarter, next week - maybe next season at the most,” he said. “Whose responsibility is it to tell [athletes] that they are not indestructible and something could happen at any given moment - and it is worthwhile, if not completely important, to at least consider what you’re going to do after sport?”