The world of professional sports is often referred to as a cutthroat business with a next-in-line mentality. Careers can come to a crashing halt in the blink of an eye, leaving players lost in the wilderness with their entire lives still ahead of them. Saracens Rugby Club has taken a unique approach to this serious issue, and it’s paying dividends on the pitch and off.
Alex Sanderson was making his mark among professional rugby’s elite. He started as a back row player for the Sale Sharks, worked his way onto the England World Cup and Six Nations clubs, and then signed on with Saracens F.C. Alas, Sanderson played only eight matches for Saracens. A serious back injury ended his career in 2005, the year he turned 26 years old.
“I guess I’m the embodiment of what can happen because it is a physical game,” Sanderson says. Fortunately, Saracens hired him as a coach, but his story remains a cautionary one for all athletes worldwide: A life of unusual talent and dedication to a sport can change in a flash.
What comes after that? For Saracens CEO Edward Griffiths, ending that story with a question is not good enough. “Most professional clubs will say: ‘Well, that’s got nothing to do with us,’ ” Griffiths admits. Saracens, true to its iconoclastic nature, moves against the grain when it comes to players’ post-rugby careers. Several years ago, Saracens hired professional career development staff to help players plan for work after rugby. It’s not only a rare perk in the world of professional sports. It’s a demand.
“Within this program,” Griffiths says, “it’s actually compulsory for a professional player at Saracens to either be studying at a university for further education or to be doing one day a week of work experience in a relevant field which they’ll move onto after rugby.”
The club reaches out to various partners to ensure its players are getting the most relevant experience. For example, CME Group, which this year became a sponsor of the club, is working on an internship program geared toward Saracens players. But why stop there? “The personal development we have for the players, we have for the coaches as well,” Sanderson adds. “Everyone in the organization is encouraged – forced at times – to expand their own boundaries.”
It is an idea whose time has come according to Dr. Rich Feller, Professor of Counseling and Career Development at Colorado State University. “Pro careers are short and when the crowds, bright lights, and fame dims, athletes need a guidance system throughout their lifespan to re-image their identity and purpose,” Feller says, adding that the equation does not end with team and athlete. “Fans love and identify with their hometown heroes, and teams realize that fans watch how players are treated.”
Athletes are notoriously focused on the moment – this season, this match, this play. But what if this kind of training actually helps winning in the moment? “You don’t necessarily see it on the field,” says Brad Barritt, a center for Saracens, which reached the finals of the European Cup last year, “but I think in terms of the overall wellness of the squad, people are definitely in a better place because it’s one less thing to worry about.”
Barritt is not just guessing about that. A member of the team since 2008, he is also the international marketing director at D&B Holdings, a family business where he has worked on property development in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Those two roles don’t compete, he says. “I think often in games, moments can get too big for you,” Barritt says, “and having an avenue to express yourself outside of rugby is great for your mental self, but also allows you to express yourself in different ways.”
Could it Work in the United States?
If it works for Saracens, could it work across other sports as well? That’s an interesting question for Hayden Smith, a lock/second row player for Saracens and also a former tight end for the NFL’s New York Jets.
“There is a very different focus in the American sports leagues – much more of a short-term emphasis on things – and it ultimately comes down to wins and losses,” Smith explains. “That’s reflected in the way the coaches and players are treated. Everyone is judged on how it goes with the wins and losses – so I think long-term careers for the players are less of an emphasis.”
Saracens Center Brad Barritt is also a marketing director for his family’s property development business. “Having an avenue to express yourself outside of rugby is great for your mental self.”
Chris Wyles, a fullback for Saracens and U.S. Rugby Team member, is a little more hopeful for athletes on U.S. teams. “I think ultimately, if more and more people are made aware that professional athletes have an entire life after sport, then it can infiltrate into U.S. sports,” Wyles says. “The main thing is looking after people and their well-being after they’re done playing because, as we know, careers can end very quickly.”
Professor Feller, in fact, consulted with the NFL earlier this year on this very topic. It turns out the league is seeing the needs that Saracens has addressed for its own players. “I was encouraged with their view that they are helping players not talk about having ‘football careers,’ ” Feller says. “I was corrected to say ‘football experiences.’ The NFL realizes commitments to high-strung, laserlike-focused athletes need to go into the fifth quarter (their next chapter after the football experience ends).”
One step Saracens has taken to focusing on the fifth quarter is building career partnerships with sponsors. When CME signed on with Saracens, for instance, it did not end with a patch on the jersey. Recognizing the strength of the Saracens career program, CME invited players to tour its Chicago headquarters, explaining in detail the inner workings of an exchange. During a trip to New York City, the company took players to the New York Mercantile Exchange. After all, it’s not difficult to see how athletes who make their living thinking fast on their feet and being unafraid to jump into the fray would do well in an exchange pit or in front of an electronic trading screen where these attributes are essential.
“We get an academy player at the age of 18, and he knows he will be a part of our club for 16 years and be provided unconditional support throughout,” Saracens CEO Griffiths says, “which demonstrates why so many players stay at Saracens for their entire careers.” If it weren’t for all the winning the club has done, including the 2011 Premiership Championship, it might sound crazy. That winning is making other teams notice according to Smith.
“We at Saracens certainly realize that we’re very fortunate to have so much energy put into various aspects of our lives. Those on other teams certainly can see it as well.”
Feller thinks other teams are heading in the same direction, “as they see players as community assets and team ambassadors who are often ill-equipped to embrace lifelong learning, financial planning and navigating their post-football life.”
Ultimately, Sanderson adds, it’s a matter of athletes taking their whole life into their own hands. “The players themselves have to realize they’re not pieces of meat,” Sanderson stresses. “The pressure is high enough and the stakes are high enough,” he says, “that if they have all of their eggs in one basket and it’s all about the game, they can overthink things and a missed tackle or a poor game will sit with them for a while. So I like to think that by having careers outside the game it makes a more well-rounded person.”
And someone equipped to navigate their post-sports life.