The Cruel Business of Sports

I have never tried to disguise my bias towards hiring my business-qualified applicants who are former athletes. This is driven by an underlying belief in the power of sports as integral teaching tool: teamwork, discipline, will to win, and many other important intangibles for success are best developed on the fields of competitive sports.

But the most valuable lesson of them all is a maturing effect that comes with learning that life is not always fair. That in life, and in business, there are harsh realities that can be quite cruel. Athletes know this inherently, because the cruelest world of all is the world of sports.

Those of us in business are downright lucky.

Let’s take a look at the life of a national athlete in the Philippines. To be clear, this is not in any way an indictment on how our national athletes are treated — this is the life of any professional athlete in most countries.

The top of the food chain of our national athletes is being nominated as a “priority athlete.” This usually means winning a medal at the SEA Games, which are held every two years. A gold medalist will earn an allowance of P40,000 a month. A silver medalist gets P30,000 a month. And a bronze medalist gets P25,000 a month. If you come in fourth or fifth place, your allowance for being a non-medalist on the national team is a mere P9,600 a month.

Now, you may think this is good money to practice a sport all day. But in reality, being on the national team in any sport is a fulltime job. And the best pay one can ever expect is to top out at P40,000 per month. This is the top of the food chain.

So a question: What is the top of the food chain in business? How many millions of pesos for the top? Imagine a business that caps its best employees at an income of P40,000 a month. How long would that business remain competitive?

To take it further, the gold medalist will earn the P40,000 a month for as long as they stay in training and keep competing, up until the next SEA Games, which is a short two years later. At this point, they have to re-earn their pay. It doesn’t matter what they have achieved in the intervening two years; it matters what they do in the all-important SEA Games.

So let’s take, for example, the last SEA Games. I personally watched a prior gold medal winner, a person earning P40,000 per month to feed a family, have a bad day. This can happen to anyone; we all have bad days. So this athlete has an off day, and ends up in fifth place. So suddenly, instantly, his pay is cut from P40,000/month to P9,600/month, one day to the next! I watched the athlete break down in tears, sad not only at having a bad day and not earning a medal for his country, but also likely worrying about how to feed the kids.

This is life as a national athlete. It is hard for any businessperson to understand such brutal realities. The athlete took a 76-percent pay cut in one day. This is like me pulling in one of my people and saying, “Hi, Jason. Well, the presentation you made today was not your best work. I wasn’t impressed. So guess what? I am chopping your pay by 76 percent as a result.”

This kind of harsh reality doesn’t happen in business.

For the past 18 months I have coached Marestella Torres, one of the most dedicated and decorated female athletes in the history of the Philippines. She’s a two-time Olympian, a multiple gold medalist at the SEA Games and at Asian level.

Well, back in 2013, Marestella decided to have a baby. Nothing wrong with that. It’s every woman’s right to have a family, and any reputable business or organization has policies and systems in place to help their female employees manage having a family while preserving their career.

Not in the sports world. If you can’t perform, you don’t get paid. Simple.

Marestella did not get maternity leave. She didn’t get a single thing. When you can’t perform, you are off the team. So she lost her spot on the national team. She went from being paid to no pay. She was on her own, to have a baby, start a family, and try to make ends meet with no income any longer. Only through the generosity of a private sponsor was Marestella able to get back into training and re-earn her spot on the national team and eventually re-earn her pay as a SEA Games medalist.

Any business that would cast aside pregnant employees would be blacklisted and find themselves in legal issues a mile long. But not in sports. You get pregnant and you can’t perform? Well, tough. Good luck. That’s the life of an athlete. You are only as good as your last performance.

Yes, sports are totally unforgiving. I sit in personnel reviews and one of my people has a bad year, and what do we do? We look beyond the year at prior years. We look at mitigating factors. We give them another chance. This is what a good business does.

Whenever I sit in one of these types of discussions, I always think of a great coach I have long admired, Chot Reyes. In August 2014, Chot was the toast of the town. Gilas had won a game in the FIBA World Championships for the first time, and the country was giddy with the taste of success on the global stage. A month or so passed, and Gilas headed to the 2014 Asian Games. As you recall, they had a tough time and were eliminated far earlier than anyone hoped. They had a bad stretch, which can happen to anyone. Suddenly, in a few weeks’ time, Chot went from toast of the town to people questioning whether he should remain in the job. Chot is no longer Gilas’ coach. And that is sports for you. One month you are a hero, and the next everyone forgets what you did and calls for your head.

Sports can be cruel, far crueler than any business.

But let’s continue, and look at the end game of sports. In business, people in their 20s are just getting going. By their 30s they start to hit their stride. By their 40s and 50s, those in business hit their peak in both achievements and earning potential.

Professional athletes have a short lifespan. Businesspeople get 30 to 40 years of productive life. An athlete gets — at most — 15 years, if they happen to stay injury-free. Athletes spend their 20s at their peak. By 35, nearly 95 percent are done. By 40, virtually nobody is left. And these people find themselves confronted with uncomfortable realities. They have many years left to live and live productively. But they spent their early years training and developing for a career with a short lifespan. Years that are now lost. They have to find new outlets to support their families. Most cobble together a life through coaching in various capacities, their best years behind them. It’s a cruel, cruel ending.

Those of us in business have it pretty good. And we should be thankful we don’t confront the cruel reality our national athletes do.  Thankful every day we walk into the office.

But the real moral of the story is this: We can help. The next time you meet one of our national athletes, shake their hand and thank them for the sacrifices they make to bring us honor. If you have the means, help them out with a sponsorship. Furthermore, when their careers conclude in competitive sports, let’s find a place for them in our companies. Let’s hire them into the private sector. Our national athletes are college-educated, battle-hardened, and know what discipline, sacrifice, pain, teamwork, and focus on results is all about. And who can’t use more employees like these?