A lesson for young stars

Life is unfair. The old saying cannot be more accurate when it comes to cases of sportsmen and women – some of them our very own – who have reached the pinnacles for their careers only to find the after life extremely tough. 

We’re talking here about sports people who enjoyed fame, fortune and plenty of cash during their glory days only to struggle so bad in the after life that they basically end up with nothing. 

We’ve seen this time and time again. And the sad trend is not confined to a particular sport. It happens in rugby, rugby league, boxing and all sports – including the elite sports where athletes earn millions.

For Samoa and Pacific Islanders in general, a few recent cases immediately spring to mind. 

David Tua’s millions and where they disappeared to is a famous example. Most of us know this story very well. Suffice to say, from someone who fought for a purse of $6m in a fight during his prime, recent reports about him losing everything to the point where he had no home so that he ended up sleeping in a boxing gym is just heart breaking. 

Tua is not alone though. As you’re reading this, the family of another famous Polynesian, the late Jonah Lomu, is still coming to grips with the reality of his life. Despite the glitz and glamour he was often associated with when he was alive, things weren’t that rosy when he passed away. He had little left in the bank, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The fight for whatever he has left looks likely to continue for some time to come.

The latest athlete to hit the headlines is former Manu Samoa, George Leaupepe. While Leaupepe is on a much lower scale in terms of earning power compared to Tua and Lomu, his story sounds awfully familiar.

The hard running midfielder who incidentally played alongside the likes of Lomu has spoken out about his struggles after rugby. The gist of his problems, it appears, is finances.

“A lot of us feel the same way about how New Zealand Rugby used us at the time, and when we finished there was really nothing for us,” Leaupepe said.

“It’s quite funny seeing as we were part of the players’ association.”

Financial desperation has had the best of Leaupepe, according to reports.

“I’d try my hand at bloody anything [at that time], to be honest,” he said.

During his career there were some who managed to turn their cash into a nest egg, but Leaupepe said the majority, like him, were educationally and psychologically unprepared.

“We were just working regular jobs and then playing rugby full-time with a lot more money thrown at us than we learned how to deal with,” he said.

When his career ended, he was left with a broken body and little more than a school cert on his CV.

“When you’re there everybody wants to get next to you but then when you step away from the limelight it’s surprising, the people you think are there for you, those are the very people that turn their backs on you.”

On page 14 of the newspaper you are reading, another famous All Black makes some very telling comments. Speaking to The NZ Herald, Craig Dowd said the early rugby professionals were easy targets for “scumbags” and “parasites”.

“Everyone was learning on the go as much as people tried to bring in business mentors and all the rest of it,” he said. “It was mind blowing stuff and we weren’t ready. At the same time a lot of scum bags came out, a lot of businessmen who wanted your buck. I tell you, there were plenty of parasites out there who would take it off you and promise the world.”

Dowd said a lot of players lost money and there is a “massive scrap heap of players who were discarded as they weren’t needed”.

“Players or past players won’t come forward to ask for help because they feel like failures,” he said. “You are dealing with a very macho world - they aren’t okay but they won’t admit to it.

“What scares me now is that a lot of these guys are coming straight out of school. These are young men at heart not skilled for business or life. Rugby takes away a really important learning stage for most people.”

We couldn’t agree more. 

Looking at some of the cases we’ve talked about here, there is obviously a need to protect our future sports stars from the prospect of being exploited and ending up in the situation where some of our biggest sporting names have. 

The fact of the matter is that these guys – like Tua, Lomu and Leaupepe – deserve better. They worked hard, they got banged up quite badly for their money, which means that no one has the right to con them of it.

There is another side to this story of course. If these guys were a bit more savvier in terms of finances and how to manage their earnings, would they have ended up on this path? Unlikely.

This should be a lesson for everyone, especially our young up and coming sports people. This day and age, raw talent no longer cuts it. They need to be smart, they need to be educated and they need to surround themselves with people who truly care for them. They don’t need parasites.

Which is why it’s quite impressive to watch the progress of the Rugby Academy Samoa. Their emphasis on educational opportunities is great. The point is that there has got to be something for these players to fall back on. 

What’s more, they have got to be given training about how to deal with money and parasites who only want to extract their hard-earned cash – robbing them of what they rightfully deserve.

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