When you dedicate your life to your profession, what happens when it all comes to an end? We look at the journeys of some of our favourite Australian sports heroes, and discover how their lives changed after they last hung up the boots.
Broken bones and shattered dreams
Rugby League player Ben Ross was close to spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair after seriously injuring his neck in the opening round of the 2009 National Rugby League (NRL) season. He made a remarkable comeback after three operations and almost two years of recovery, returning to the field as Rabbitohs' captain in 2010.
Injuries are inevitable in a life dedicated to sport. A 2002 report on the incidence of injuries sustained in amateur Rugby League Sevens shows that the risk of injuries was 283.5 per 1,000 playing hours.
Many athletes continue to compete despite suffering serious injuries. Australian cricketer Ryan Harris has played through chronic knee pain since he was a teenager, as have many of his teammates. Basketballer Lauren Jackson relied on prescription pain killers to fight the pain and continue to play.
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Returning to the field after a serious injury isn’t just about the game, it’s also about livelihood. In 2017, the average annual salary for NRL players was $313,000, with star players like Cooper Cronk and James Tedesco rumoured to be paid in excess of $1 million by the Sydney Roosters. Other sports have even higher earning potential — golfer Jason Day, earning $18.9 million each year, was number one on the 2017 list of top 50 Australian sports earners, while racing driver Craig Lowndes was number 50 with $1.30 million. Time spent not competing not only takes off the competitive edge but can weaken an athlete’s financial position.
Life after the final goal is scored
Sudden retirement due to injuries can be a terrible shock, and many athletes often lack the professional skills to join to workforce.
The average NRL player expects to play until their early 30’s. Michael Greenfield’s NRL career ended prematurely in 2012 when he was 26 years old and suffered a serious neck injury during a shoulder tackle while playing for Melbourne Storm. Greenfield has taken the matter to the Supreme Court, suing the Australian Rugby League Commission for negligence. He claims he only ever knew football, and now has no trade or qualifications to fall back on.
Some sports stars have found themselves in financial troubles when they’re no longer earning high salaries and are no longer part of a team. Former Socceroos captain, Lucas Neill, had earned $40 million over the course of his career but declared bankruptcy in 2016. Likewise, Australian cricketer Craig McDermott found himself in serious financial difficulty after he retired.
Reinventing a future
Medal-winning netballer Liz Ellis knew the day would come when she could no longer play, and so completed a law degree while training at a professional level. She retired after leading the Australian Netball Diamonds to their 2007 World Netball Championships victory. Since then she has become an inspirational speaker, radio and television presenter and sports commentator. She’s regularly consulted by government on sporting initiatives and represents the Australian athletes’ interests by sitting on the Board of organisations like the Australian Sports Commission, the Sydney Olympic Parks Authority and the NSW Institute of Sport. In 2009, she was awarded an Order of Australia for her commitment to charitable organisations and role encouraging women in sport.
Following a dual pathway of sport and education, by either learning a trade or earning academic qualifications, is an approach that is endorsed and recommended by many athletes who have retired. Liz Ellis has said that studying law while training professionally was mutually beneficial to both pursuits. Al Baxter, former Rugby Union player, worked as a qualified architect while playing in the 2003 and 2007 Rugby World Cups and now works full-time as an architect. The most important factor for Ellis and Baxter was that they each had a plan for what lay beyond their final game.
Having the right support to help navigate new pathways is essential. Crossing the line, is a non-profit organisation that helps athletes answer the question ‘Who am I, without my sport?’ In addition to directing members to mental health resources, they connect them with professionals who can help with financial tools like investment strategies.
Income Protection Insurance can help people who find themselves unexpectedly unable to work due to illness or injury, and helps them financially until they can restore balance in their lives.