Caring for Athletes

Dwight Howard and I were going at it. Exchanging post moves. Backing each other down in the lane. Talking back and forth. It was the summer of 2009 and we were teammates on the Orlando Magic, the defending Eastern Conference champions. The game was getting physical — good natured, but tough one-on-one ball. As a role player, I saw it as my mission to get him prepared, as best I could, for the next season.

That’s when I felt a pop in my knee. I’d had knee surgeries during the course of my career, but this pop made me realize the inevitable had arrived. My playing days were probably over. Entering that next season, my 13th in the NBA, I was on the team, but I wasn’t. I didn’t play a single game. Game after game, I watched from the bench, knowing that the sound of the buzzer at the end of the fourth quarter just meant another step toward a bigger decision at season’s end.

But during that season, I did spend time thinking about what my exit strategy was going to be. I thought about where I’d be working the next season, about how would I announce my retirement and, knowing at the time that my health wasn’t 100 percent, about whether I was financially independent enough to deal with my health once I no longer had a team doctor. It was stuff I hadn’t considered a whole lot during my career.

Most pro athletes don’t think about health care — or its potential price tag — until their playing days are over. Now that I’m out of the league and I communicate a lot with both young players entering the league and retired players leaving it, I see it all in a new light.

As we know, injuries are common in sports. But as fans, we read injury reports and often overlook the notion that a player could be dealing with something truly excruciating — the stat sheet just says “questionable” or “DNP.” After all, the best doctors in the world are treating them … as long as they are on an active roster.

The truth is, most players (even the ones who walk away on their own terms) retire because something in their body is not responding the way it used to. When you’re watching an NBA game, it’s safe to assume that almost every player is dealing with some nagging injury. Later in the season and in the playoffs, it only gets magnified. And these types of injuries will linger long after their playing days are over.

When this happens, players go from having the top health care physicians and specialists at their disposal to practically having to fend for themselves — almost overnight. It’s a big shock. According to the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, any player without a contract ceases to receive league-sponsored health insurance on August 31st following the last season of their contract. That means that, in theory, you could win an NBA Championship in June, announce your retirement, and lose your health insurance before Labor Day that same summer.

When retired players are faced with the daunting reality of sudden out-of-pocket medical expenditures, it can be an extremely foreign (and stressful) situation to be in — especially when it comes to players who may not have played in the league very long, or were not able to make as much money as they anticipated.

Make no mistake, NBA players pull in big salaries. There are players out there who have made a significant amount of money in their careers, no doubt about it. The guys with the huge contracts can probably afford their own health insurance for as long as they live. But for former players who didn’t last in the league very long, or who played in an era where contracts weren’t as big as they are in recent years, spreading out your money over decades of retirement — and the inevitable associated health costs — is a scary thing. It’s a lot more ex-NBA players than most fans would think.

That said, I applaud the big news from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) this month. The NBPA announced that it plans to allocate $10-$15 million of its share of the NBA’s upcoming TV revenue deal — which would take effect in the 2016-17 season — to fund health insurance costs for more than 1,500 of its former players. (I’d be included, so forgive me for my self-interest!) The proposal would allow retired NBA players to choose among three different health care options if they are not already insured.

The NBPA’s intent is in the right place. But whether or not this is a significant amount of funding is yet to be determined. Either way, you can’t deny that this is a positive step toward taking care of the players who helped make the game the way it is today — long after the highlight reels are over.

It’s also a win for current players. While former players would potentially be provided with some relief in health care, current players should be thankful that this is an option that could be there for them when it’s their turn to hang it up. It’s peace of mind for current players. It’s a vote of confidence from the league that their bodies will be protected after they hang it up.

At the same time, players should not view this as the end-all, be-all in receiving health care after their playing days are over. The amount likely won’t be enough to cover long-term or high-cost health care. As we know with health insurance among non-athletes, even if you’re covered you could still be one injury away from significant financial hardship. (The leading cause of bankruptcy in America is health-related.) Retired athletes who struggle with their finances often cite health care expenses as a primary reason.

As pro athletes, we’re not getting any younger and we’re going to continue to have health issues as we age. If we’re basketball players, it’s going to be the knees. If we’re football players, it could be concussion symptoms. And so on.

More than anything else, I encourage players to continue saving their money. The more money you save, the more options you will have as you get older and be financially independent. It sounds extremely basic, but if it were that simple, we wouldn’t hear every week about players losing their money.

There are plenty of resources to help players think about how they can set money aside for their post-playing health care expenses. And there’s also a chapter in my new book , Winning the Money Game that offers tools and other pieces of advice for players.

I want my fellow athletes to have a life after their playing days that is exemplary in their retirement. Potentially receiving assistance thanks to the NBPA is an important step in the right direction, but we can help ourselves even more if we are a little more financially savvy in the long-term. Covering ourselves from both sides — call it a double-double.