Horse racing, wrestling and football have little in common aside from the inherent competition they provide. However, the sports' athletes face a very similar set of challenges once the competition is over. Addressing the health and welfare of aging and retired professional athletes has become a major sticking point for the governing bodies of most every athletic association. As legislative leaders in Washington, DC debate the future of Social Security for aging Americans, there is also an increasing interest in applying similar logic to the problems retired athletes face. If athletic associations continue to ignore the needs of their retired athletes, they will face federally imposed mandates.
When Randy "Macho Man" Savage died recently, he was the 14th performer from Wrestlemania VII to die prematurely. In the twenty years since that event, more than a quarter of the wrestlers have died. The horse racing community was similarly shaken by recent news reports detailing how the downturned economy has caused a dramatic decrease in financial support for non-profits caring for retired racehorses. Former racehorses can't speak for themselves, so they survive on the goodwill of a very small but generous group of philanthropist horse lovers.
While working athletes can earn large paychecks for a brief period of time, their overall financial outlook can become bleak in the decades that follow. Managing healthcare costs and everyday living expenses has proven to be a challenge for aging and retired athletes. Even in baseball, which supposedly fixed labor issues nearly 20 years ago, the sad stories of Lenny Dykstra and Jim Leyritz are upsetting to fans.
As for football, issues of health and retirement benefits are front and center in a lockout that is being contested on four legal fronts by attorneys from eight of the most expensive law firms in the nation. And this week, NBA commissioner David Stern said that the league and union are "very far apart" on their own simmering labor dispute.
It's hard to believe that sports leaders haven't learned that federal intervention in sports has always been painful -- tarnishing reputations, alienating fans and hurting the bottom-line. Did anyone enjoy watching Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens testifying in legislative chambers and courtrooms? In college football, BCS head Bill Hancock thinks the government "has more important things to do" than tinker with professional sports. But Hancock is placing a risky bet. President Obama is a huge sports fan and has shown a willingness to tinker in large industries.
Fans want the problems solved so they can enjoy the sport without seeing the harsh realities. While the public seldom cheers for government intervention, it may be their last hope. But federal action is also the worst case scenario for any business owner. While it's easy to just call on wealthy business owners to "do the right thing," it's never that simple. Athletic commissioners and governing sports bodies should act quickly with these steps to avoid Washington's forced solutions:
Step One: Hold a formal convention or forum with fans and former athletes. Opening the conversation to the public and others may seem unwieldy, but it may also provide some valuable ideas. Even if nothing actionable comes of it, at least fans will feel they've been heard and will likely have a better grasp on the complicated issues the industry is facing.
Step Two: Name an independent "czar" to study the problems and make recommendations for solutions. Even if baseball was slow to address the issues of The Mitchell Report, the appointment of such an elder statesman can give credibility and a huge, publicly-supported boost to the effort.
Step Three: Develop an industry compact to support the findings of the independent czar unequivocally -- and call out any individuals that refuse to join. Let the media and public shame the intransigent outliers into joining the effort.
Step Four: Identify state legislatures that are open to offering supportive and thoughtful solutions. Industry leaders can craft viable and sustainable solutions with a state bill, which can then easily be tweaked and replicated in other states. The federal government will be less likely to act if progress is being made at the state level.
Industry leaders must take concrete steps now in order to avoid the dangerous spectacle of federal regulatory and/or legislative intervention. Social Security in sports can't be created overnight, but the perception is that most leaders have ignored the issues faced by aging and retired athletes. It may be too late for the NFL given the escalation of their lockout, but it's time for the NBA, WWE, UFC and other sports' governing bodies to act.
(Full Disclosure: Capitol Media Partners has provided strategic communications support for an organization involved in the retirement and care of racehorses.)
Richard Grenell served as the Spokesman for the last four U.S. Ambassadors to the UN. He is currently a partner with Los Angeles-based Capitol Media Partners.
Brad Chase has worked with dozens of FORTUNE 500 companies over the last decade as a strategic media advisor. He is also a partner with Los Angeles-based Capitol Media Partners.
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