John Amaechi is a British psychologist and a former NBA basketball player. At the age of 17, when he first picked up a basketball, Amaechi was not considered athletic enough to have any chance of success in domestic sports, much less overseas. Six years later he became a starting center in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over his eight-year career in basketball, he also played for the Orlando Magic and the Utah Jazz.
Since retiring from sports, Amaechi pursued a Ph.D. in psychology, recently co-authoring a paper on the subject of self-esteem, goal setting, and personality. He is a fifteen year veteran of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS), its division of occupational psychology, and the BPS Psychometric Testing Group.
In 2007, he released his bestselling memoir “Man in the Middle,” chronicling his life and work and revealing to the world that he was gay, making him the only openly gay man ever to have played in the NBA.
Amaechi also has his own charity, the ABC Foundation, with a center in Manchester that sees 2,000 young people per week go through its doors. He has teamed with researchers at the Pennsylvania State University and the San Diego University for Integrative Studies to create a program that promotes social emotional training in young people who are coached in life as much as in sports.
Question: Why do so many athletes spend all their money so quickly after they retire?
John Amaechi: I think that we ill-prepare athletes from the very beginning. From the moment they pick up a ball or kick or whatever it is they’re doing. We ill-prepare them. Especially with the major sports. What you see is this cycle of entitlement that gets thrown their way, so the kid who is in junior high and hasn’t finished his test, but still gets to play because he is an athlete, fails the test and still gets to play because they’re an athlete, gets to get away with not doing chores at home because they’ve got practice. All these types of things build up and then in college... I love college and I think many colleges aren’t as good as the one that I went to in terms of taking care of the whole athlete, and they focus on weightlifting and practice and academically they just let you get by. I went to Penn State. Nobody was allowed to just get by. They wanted academic all-Americans if they could have them, but that is not the case everywhere.
And then you get to be a pro and all of the sudden a lot of things are possible for you that are impossible for anybody else. You know, the fact is that I’ve been stopped more than a handful of times by the police for driving just a little bit too fast and I’ve never had a ticket in this country, never had a ticket because I’ve signed plenty of tickets for police officers, but I haven’t actually been given the ticket.
So all of a sudden if you’re not careful this feeling comes over you that you are a bit omnipotent and you can do anything. And this is a really dangerous combination once the adulation stops. It’s really dangerous. Paired with that—and I think maybe even more important—is the fact that when I played basketball I never thought I was a basketball player. I played basketball. I was a man who played basketball and after I played basketball and before I played basketball I was going to be a psychologist, whereas most people who play their occupation is their definition—and then when they stop doing who they are, they become nothing. And that is when you see so many of these problems where they’re desperate to try and find a new way to be relevant even to themselves. So this combination of entitlement and then the fact that when your career is over you stop being relevant even to yourself is just deadly. We’ve got to educate athletes—not only in the pros with great programs that need to be implemented, but in college and in high school and even before.
Recorded October 7, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller