‘We’re Talking About WORK’: How Athletes Turned Early Retirement into a Rebellion of the Mindful
Why this matters
A surprising number of A-listers and young prospects are walking into the sports sunset earlier than expected. But expectations are changing. Superstars, executives, and psychologists agree: Mental wellness has become an increasingly important tool for athletes ending first careers on time and discovering the next one — on their own terms.
Maya Moore strummed on her acoustic guitar, writing a song about hope. It was a time of not infrequent discontent, that winter of 2018, at her temporary apartment in Yekaterinburg, Russia. She appreciated having her mother as a roommate, even if her heart longed for a man 5,000 miles away in a maximum-security prison. And Moore still enjoyed playing basketball with her fellow American teammates like Brittney Griner, even if the pay inequities of the Women’s National Basketball Association were forcing them to play a second season overseas to earn a better living. Their team went undefeated upon Moore’s midseason arrival and won the EuroLeague championship. Some mornings like this, though, she found more comfort in the rhythm of the blues than in the year-round grind of a game she’d conquered already, with two national titles in college, two Olympic gold medals, four WNBA championships, and the league’s MVP award. Maya Moore was, at 28 years old, perhaps the greatest women’s hooper of all time. She was also preparing to quit her day job.
Back in the States, she floated the idea to her boyfriend, Jonathan Irons, who’d been wrongfully convicted of burglary and assault 20 years earlier.
“Is this just because of me?” he remembered asking.
“It’s not just that,” Moore responded. “I need to be well. And I’m not feeling my best right now. I need to take a break.”
Irons reminded her that the life of an activist — fighting for his freedom and for criminal-justice reform — was not easy; her second career would not be short-term.
“OK,” Moore said. “That it?”
The next winter, she announced a season-long sabbatical from the Minnesota Lynx. The winter after that, Irons’ conviction was overturned, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the woman he would marry nine days following his release, in July 2020. That was it: The GOAT had more important work to do. Having not played basketball professionally in four and a half years, she formally retired earlier this year, at 33.
“The life that you see me living now is a manifestation of how I’ve grown in my understanding of having a good rhythm of work and rest,” Moore tells me, after breastfeeding her son, Jonathan Irons Jr., and putting him down for a nap. “We can get so caught up in our identity only looking like one thing, and our identity can express itself in so many life-giving ways — that morphs and shifts and transforms.”
Most pro athletes who retire earlier than expected do not have the luxury of choice. Too many injuries and not enough money. Too many bad coaches, not enough playing time. Brain damage without health insurance. Childbirth without maternity leave. Serena Williams wrote last year that she’d be as singularly focused as 45-year-old Tom Brady, too, if she weren’t a woman growing her family. Williams doesn’t like the concept of “retirement” so much as an “evolution” beyond her first career.
Indeed, the expectations around calling it quits are evolving at the highest levels of sport, in step with the slower tempo and bold young voices that have upended the modern workplace. Listen to superstars, executives, and psychologists, and you’ll hear about mindfulness as an increasingly important tool for ending first careers on time and discovering the next one — on a player’s own terms.
You don’t, of course, have to be an A-lister to value your self-worth. More up-and-coming hoopers are emphasizing personal wellness over the pressure of the practice facility. More and more American football players are seeking career paths that do not involve degenerative brain disease. And Moore, in her new book with Irons and their joint interview with Global Sport Matters, insists that even the hardest-working competitors from here to Siberia — from sports to sales — can find their pace without the “dehumanizing stain that comes with celebrity.”
“What are we talking about? We’re talking about work. We’re talking about careers that are public. You’ve got the human element of work and careers, and then you’ve got a celebrity culture,” Moore says. “A lot of the things that I’ve done to be healthier, and more who I am meant to be, have been disconnecting from celebrity. But that doesn’t mean being a public figure can’t be helpful.”
In the middle of last football season, Chris Borland got a call from an interior defensive lineman. The player was less than two years into the National Football League but expressed concern about undiagnosed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Borland texted back the cold, hard data — the National Institutes of Health had just reported “conclusive evidence” of a causal link between CTE and contact sports. “It can be framed as exaggerated or there’s people that want to destroy football,” he says, “so I try to be more clear-headed.” Besides, Borland is used to the doomsaying: “By the time someone’s asked to get a hold of me, they’re considering quitting.”
Borland starred at the University of Wisconsin and had 107 tackles during his 2014 rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers. He tried to sit down with his bosses the following March, to explain why he’d decided to retire at 24 years old, but he says the general manager ghosted him. “It was a little puzzling — in my mind, I just had to move on,” Borland tells me now. “Sometimes I like to think of it as: I walked away from football in order to quit brain damage.”
He does not encourage players to follow his path, only that they consider the increasingly horrifying research and the relative peace of not taking a thousand hits a year. “It’s unrealistic to say, ‘Hey, just pivot,’” says Borland, who went on to work at former President Jimmy Carter’s nonprofit and The Players’ Tribune. Now 32, Borland counsels teenagers in Dayton, Ohio, and plans to launch a player-driven storytelling platform for college athletes later this month.
Related: How Schools Struggle to Ready Athletes for Success After College Sports
With the benefits of name, image, and likeness deals, Borland doesn’t see why a starting Big 10 linebacker shouldn’t be able to leave school with a degree and $1 million. “Then you can decide if you want to continue to the NFL or not,” he says. “If there was more justice in the way college athletics are conducted, it might disincentivize players from hanging on for Years 4 through 20 in the NFL.”
The average NFL career lasts an estimated 3.3 years; approximations for the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League have ranged between four and five. As Marshawn Lynch famously put it: “Take care of y’all’s bodies, take care of y’all’s chicken, take care of y’all’s mental, because we ain’t lasting that long.” Borland homed in on the mental, helping to launch a pilot program at his alma mater focused on the neuroscience of meditation. He got 17 former NFL players and Wisconsin’s athletic director to sign up. “There’s just proof,” he says, “that people from within the football establishment aren’t going to be open to. So I don’t know that you’re gonna be able to go into Alabama and talk to Nick Saban and the team about the latest CTE research. I do think you can talk about the benefits of meditation.”
When NBA Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili was considering retirement at 38 years old, he began to meditate outside of the San Antonio Spurs organization. Ginobili said he began “to enjoy a loss,” to appreciate his workplace. He played for three more seasons before his retirement in 2018. That was the year All-Stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan began to speak publicly about their anxiety and depression. Now, practically every major American franchise employs at least one in-house or freelance psychologist as part of the team’s performance-science operations. Yoga and meditation rooms abound. Dr. Hillary Cauthen, a former consulting therapist for the Spurs, says mental wellness has become “part of a coaching style” that increasingly encourages small wins outside of the practice facility and the arena — parenting, graduate-school courses, community work — as a preview of life after the game.
“You can kind of wrap your brain around the on and off time, which can be healthy if you’re describing it how Manu has,” Cauthen tells me. “But the other part is: This is fun! … It’s kind of finding where they are in the continuum and bringing that back into, ‘Are you actually happy doing this?’ Because, look, nobody wants to lose. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. So we gotta be real with those feelings as well. That part is not enjoyable. How do you maintain the level of overall purpose and reason of why they began this journey?”
Real talk on early retirement has risen since the pandemic arrived. Michael Johnson, the promising young midfielder for Manchester City who quit at 24, described to The Athletic that he felt like watching “the light at the end of the tunnel disappearing.” Late last year, Andrew Luck admitted to ESPN that he’d almost fallen out of love with football, at 29, once he realized how much of his life was consumed by the pressure of being an NFL quarterback.
Then, in an Instagram post last December, came an unexpected influencer.
Twenty-two-year-old Tyrell Terry was the 31st pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He meditated, too. But there were panic attacks and puking. A leave of absence from the Dallas Mavericks and a distrust of the team psychologist. A dislike for himself and for the NBA life. “I didn’t see it as just a game anymore or something that I loved,” Terry told Sports Illustrated earlier this year. “It felt like something … that I was gaining resentment for.”
Terry’s agent and friend, Daniel Poneman, tells me that he considered alternative treatment for his client: “Sometimes I would joke with a buddy of mine in the basketball world, when we would see a player who was in a shooting slump or had the yips or a confidence crisis, ‘Hey, just give me a week in the woods with a good shaman and some mushrooms and this guy’ll be back as good as new.’”
In late 2021, traditional therapy and meditation were failing Terry. The Mavericks waived him. He did eventually just take mushrooms. But Poneman stopped joking around, started attending conferences about the benefits of psychedelic drugs, and introduced Terry to executives at the startup Field Trip Health. They prepared a safe, legal, and effective treatment plan featuring round after round of therapy with ketamine. “He didn’t come out of it saying, ‘I get it now. I love basketball,’” Poneman recalls. “He said, ‘Let’s try this again. Let’s go back to basketball.’ But his whole identity wasn’t wrapped up in ‘This has to work, or I’m a failure.’”
Terry’s two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies last year, between the NBA and its developmental G League, didn’t stick. The Bundesliga beckoned in Germany. That was it: The prospect accepted his vulnerability. The agent accepted Terry’s retirement. Encouraged it. “Pro sports in a way are built for guys who are psychotically obsessed with winning,” Poneman says. “But then you look at the greater context of life and it’s like, ‘What are we winning here?’ There are people like Maya Moore — a great champion at a high level who has that perspective of identity and balance — but I hope everyone has the opportunity to lose and find themself along the way.”
While The New York Times was pronouncing that Moore’s dedication to the case of her now-husband “could animate a growing movement to overhaul American jurisprudence,” she and Irons preferred to talk about, you know, dish soap. Back in 2018, Moore was getting ready to take a year away from basketball and preferred a simpler existence — until the baby came, the GOAT drove a 2006 Honda Civic. Irons was hard at work on a petition with lawyers funded by Moore, but he’d been a dishwasher in prison — until his freedom came, their conversations often veered toward the mundane. “I knew she was dealing with a lot of anxiety,” Irons writes in their memoir, “but just like I didn’t tell her all the gritty details of what was happening to me in prison, she did the same thing with sparing me details of her pain.”
Even today, with the conviction overturned and the toddler napping, Moore does not accept the easy labels of trailblazer with a “voice” or mother with a healthy “work-life” balance. She is committed to bringing home the next Jonathan Irons, and her non-profit, Win With Justice, is no hopey-changey siren song. Its toolkit for families of innocent prisoners remains in tune with the rise of progressive prosecutors and conviction-integrity units nationwide. Moore says she hasn’t spent enough time with Griner since her former teammate’s return from wrongful imprisonment in Russia, but she wouldn’t advise Griner on how to use the individual platform that comes with the entanglements of celebrity and injustice. “Platforms take tending to and building, but the platform is not who you are — it’s a tool,” Moore says. “I would just encourage anyone: Don’t let the pressure of using your platform override your wellness. Be well. Then your platform can actually be better used.”
Related: The Disruptive Power of Activism By and For Women Athletes
Pro athletes are known for their ongoing commitment to community work, but not even the most prominent freedom-fighters are willing to give up the game entirely to fight for social justice or mental-health awareness. (Colin Kaepernick, still in game shape, hasn’t retired so much as taken on a more important job; Simone Biles is “up in the air” about the 2024 Olympics.) The broadcast and podcasting booths beckon, for some. (Brady and his $375 million deal with Fox Sports are pretty much the opposite of blackballed.) Hundreds of former NFL players have chosen the more intentionally inconspicuous world of high school coaching, and dozens more have returned to school themselves. (Myron Rolle, out of the NFL by 25, became a neurosurgeon.) And investment opportunities, for better or worse, abound. (Blake Martinez made more money in five months selling Pokémon cards than he did leading the NFL in tackles for a season; last month, ahead of his 30th birthday, he opted to sell cards full time.)
Influence and generational change are heady enough, but the untethering of jockness from self-worth remains the difficult work ahead. “For many athletes, whether they’re elite or not, you can’t really talk about successes or failures or the emotional ups and downs without talking about the concept of one’s identity — what they do as an athlete is a fundamental part of their very identity,” says Dr. William Parham, the inaugural director of mental health and wellness for the NBA players’ union. “When the fans stop cheering and they’re no longer in the arena, that has some consequences. So there’s a vulnerability there that needs to be appreciated and addressed: What are you really connected to? From which well are you nourishing yourself most?”
Which are easy questions for a psychiatrist to ask. Ashleigh Barty stunned the tennis world last March when she quit as the world’s top-ranked player. She had been too busy excelling at sports for the first quarter-century of her life to have a complete answer, other than that it might be “greedy” to keep winning after three grand-slam titles. Björn Borg quit at 25, too, and he didn’t even really offer an explanation. In a new memoir of her own, Barty writes of a mentor who regretted a comeback, of vibing with Borg over simply not wanting to play a game as much as you used to. She sympathizes with the broken-down bodies and her colleagues who’ve been berated by coaches. Barty doesn’t despise tennis, but she would rather not cling to it until she does.
Barty writes, “There’s a line I like about this: ‘Retire when they ask Why?, not When?’ Give it away when everyone will ask Why did you? rather than Why don’t you?”
Which are easy questions for the best women’s tennis player on Earth to ask — most elite athletes still play until they can’t get paid for it anymore. Cauthen, the former Spurs psychologist who now runs wellness for the Austin F.C. soccer club, has counseled athletes who’ve walked into the sports sunset with nary a tweet. She admires the A-listers who normalize the normalcy of what she calls the ending of transitional careers.
“It’s a natural part of what happens in sports, which is not something people can do, in most cases, for eternity, for their job,” Cauthen says. “Everyone likes to know the explanation of Why? But what if they’re just … done?