Imagine if we expected people to choose their careers in sixth grade. If we regularly required 12-year-olds to make decisions that would dictate the rest of their lives. The thought makes little sense, yet for athletes, that’s essentially what happens. In order to become competitive at the college level — let alone the professional level — they have to start building those skills in childhood. Intrinsic talent and biology come into play, but few things build skills better than time and repetition.
Now imagine yourself in a room full of 12-year-old Black boys and ask them what they want to be when they grow up. I would bet money I don’t have that most of those boys would tell you they wanna ball — football or basketball, depending on where you are in the country, but the dream is the same.
There’s nothing wrong with having dreams as a kid. The problems come when those dreams are so lofty that they’re unachievable for the majority of people and so narrowly defined that they prevent kids from developing other interests and strengths.
My uncle was one of the lucky ones. Cornell Green played for the Dallas Cowboys under Tom Landry from 1962 to 1974, winning a Super Bowl and getting named to five Pro Bowl teams in the process. What makes his journey even more improbable was that he didn’t play football in college — or even in high school. Nope, he was a two-time All-American basketball star who had already been drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs (now the Washington Wizards) when he signed with the Cowboys.
The way my uncle tells the story, he went to training camp figuring he’d get cut, collect his thousand dollars, and go back to playing basketball. That’s not what happened, obviously — and with his quick mind and easy demeanor (his team nickname was Sweetlips), he was able to follow his successful tenure in the NFL with a 30-year career as a pro scout.
Clearly, my uncle is an outlier: Not every player who goes pro is lucky enough to continue working in their sport. What about the ones who get injured, the ones who have to figure out what’s next without a successful career under their belt?
That’s what I asked Tahir Whitehead, a veteran NFL linebacker who has played for the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders. Inspired by his older brother Quaheem, a local football star in Newark, New Jersey, Tahir began playing at nine, but he never saw football as his future profession. “I was an aggressive kid,” he says. “I started fighting and doing all of that foolishness, so I used [football] as my outlet to get out all that aggression.”
While playing football kept Whitehead out of trouble, he wasn’t motivated to keep up with his schoolwork until late in high school, when Division I schools came sniffing around, and he realized his grades might keep him from taking advantage of that opportunity. “It was never that I couldn’t get it,” he says. “I just didn’t ever really apply myself.” Whitehead did a one-year glow up, bringing his GPA up almost two full points over the course of his senior year. He was a regular fixture in his guidance counselor’s office, making sure he knew exactly what classes he needed to take, how good his grades needed to be, and what kind of SAT score he needed.
The hard work paid off: He landed at Temple University in Philadelphia where he played all four years and graduated with a degree in criminal justice. “The moment that I realized that I can achieve more, that I deserved more, there was no looking back,” he says.
That realization is a key piece of the puzzle. So many young Black men grow up in school systems where they’re expected to misbehave and underperform before they even set foot in a classroom. They also suffer from a lack of examples of what success looks like outside of sports and entertainment, so they may not know how to imagine a future as a happy, prosperous adult who didn’t hit the athletic or celebrity lottery.
For those like Whitehead who make it to college sports, college is often a stepping stone toward their eventual goal of going pro. And it’s often treated as such: We’ve all heard the horror stories about fake classes and “tutors” who take classes for athletes. The near impossibility of playing and practicing 40 or more hours each week — a full-time job, essentially — while carrying a full class load often means that academics fall by the wayside. But when a mere 1.2% of Division I football players and 1.6% of Division I basketball players make it to the pros, that phenomenon takes on tragic significance.
What doesn’t get talked about is how much a research scientist, business executive, or hedge fund manager is likely to net over the course of a 30-year career.
I struggled with this conundrum as I watched the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U, which follows players at the nation’s top junior college football teams fighting desperately to prove themselves worthy of a spot playing Division I football. We meet young men with severe trauma from growing up amid abuse and violence, young men whose academic skills are nowhere near where they should be but whose talents have allowed them to be loopholed and promoted as needed. Young men who, despite their skills and worth, suffer from confidence issues reinforced by years of authority figures expecting them to do the wrong thing to the extent that they never learned to believe in themselves — something that is not remedied by being screamed at by a middle-aged white dude named Buddy. (“They’re not just your coach,” Whitehead says. “They’re your therapist, your mentor, your father in certain instances—that’s what a few coaches were to me growing up.”)
It’s hard to think these young men wouldn’t have been better served by counseling, one-on-one academic guidance, mentorship, and personal development — rather than a laser focus on getting them into a larger and more rigorous program. “For some people, football is life because they’ve been playing it so long that it’s a part of them. They feel like it makes them who they are,” Whitehead says. “For a lot of people like that, and you get a lot of those guys in [junior college football], to have it taken away from them, that can also be detrimental.”
In theory, the payoff for the gamble isn’t just greatness but lifelong financial security. Every day we hear about a new record-breaking contract being signed or an eight- or nine-figure endorsement deal. With all this information being widely reported, of course every kid is gonna want it — yet what doesn’t get talked about on the same morning radio show is how much a research scientist, business executive, or hedge fund manager is likely to net over the course of a 30-year career. Consider that the average length of an NFL career is about three years, and you start to realize that kids’ dreams might look a little different if they had more information about more types of careers.
Then there’s the brutal honesty that, even if they make it to the NFL or NBA and enjoy a lucrative and lengthy career, by the end of it they’ve sacrificed their bodies to pad the profits of owners who make more money than they ever will (and who don’t have to put their physical and mental health on the line for a living). No matter what level of success they experience as a player, someone else will always see more benefit from it than they will.
Given that split, I asked Whitehead about LeBron James’ now-famous comments about NFL team owners’ “slave mentality.” “Something definitely needs to change [in the NFL],” Whitehead said. “You can say Black team ownership or more people of color in front office and head coaching positions. I believe it should be more of a partnership though: There’s no NFL without the players, so I think they need to shape their mentality to think more like that instead of ‘you guys should just be happy that you have a job.’ That’s really what it boils down to, understanding and respecting each other’s position, and the respect just isn’t quite there.”
After all that, is it worth it? For a lot of players — those who reach the elite level and even those who simply stay employed for a decade or more — it absolutely is, and I can understand why. But for the vast majority of kids out there, the ones who will never play their sport beyond high school? Probably not.
For them, we have to do a better job of demonstrating what success looks like outside of the sports and entertainment industries. When kids have to write school assignments, encourage them to find a Black person to write about who isn’t in one of those industries. After-school programs and extracurricular activities other than athletics need to actively recruit these kids and show how they’re relevant to their life experience. Black professionals of all careers have to invest in community so they can be visible examples of grown success to the youth around them.
The seeds of change belong to those willing to leverage their own position, which is why Whitehead does what he can to set others like him up for success: running football camps and serving on the advisory board of a youth boxing gym in Detroit. “I have dreams and aspirations to do bigger and more things than football,” Whitehead says. “This is just one thing in my life where I’ve been fortunate enough to play for a long time. So it’s like, how can I continue? How can I help people get out there and get something of their own?”
Like Marshawn Lynch said: bodies, mentals, chicken. I think Tahir’s got it covered.