The media frenzy surrounding sport, these days, is almost (almost) as financially viable and entertaining as sport itself. Whilst rugby union may have a natural, if fading, aversion to monetizing and commercializing, with greater frequency we are seeing ex-players shape careers for themselves having left the game.
This is not surprising. A professional athlete dedicates their life to a sport, their effort is unparalleled, their lifestyle, disciplined diet, all these things they struggle to ‘turn off’ following retirement. Which is why the professional merry-go-round sees so many go into coaching, or, more often, and with a greater chance of success, punditry.
Whilst Johnny Wilkinson, Brian O’Driscoll and the like have gone down the more serious television route, others, defined by their character, humour and easy going nature take a different path. Through online forums such as Joe Rugby and the Rugby Pod, players like Andy Goode, Jim Hamilton, Danny Care and James Haskell are carving out careers for themselves by being funny, recasting old anecdotes, and, occasionally, offering some professional insight.
For many, this is a bizarre development. The ex-professional sportsman as a ‘personality’. A personality in the way that Graham Norton, Gary Lineker or Jonathan Ross are personalities – presences online and onscreen. Personally, watching James Haskell, a man who just two years ago was all fire and fury in a blue scrum cap, on touring duty with England in Australia, sell himself ‘down under’ on I’m a Celebrity is a truly strange experience.
Haskell, without meaning to be cynical, has a very well defined public persona, well suited to a successful career outside of sport. His DJ’ing for example, not only does he enjoy it but it constructs an image of him as a laugh, as an entertainer, and someone likely to get ‘clicks’ online. And he is.
It is the questions surrounding such a life that have me worried, however. Leaving a professional environment can be a trying experience: personally and financially the stability is gone. What next? In an era prior to professionalism this was not quite such an issue, players simply continued with their job as they saw fit. But now, they have to scramble into the limelight in search of payment, a name and security.
The fanfare surrounding sport is a strange and unpredictable world. One thing, however, I feel sure of: in 10 years time it won’t still be James Haskell in the limelight. Joe Marler looks a good bet to be the next rugby ‘personality,’ attracting headlines for his colorful interviews and wild hairstyle.
This is a ruthless world to enter into, though, one in which you are relevant or you are unemployed. It is one in which people have a shelf life.
A good example of this is Love Island. Much has been made of the scramble made by its contestants every year, to win big contracts with modelling or clothing companies, to milk as much money as they can from the system before it spits them out the other side, replacing them with a fresh batch of entrants into the villa, and the strain this process has on their mental health.
Rugby, like all public businesses, must be wary, and protect those who leave it. With dangerous levels of concussion, ex-players, who have clobbered into one another for a decade for our entertainment, should be looked after. There is a duty of care. Let them go on I’m a Celebrity if they want to, but let them know it is a disorientating and capricious world in which to make a living.
Written by Joe Ronan.