Male Athlete Perspective – the dilemma of divorce

Athletes and the family unit – Part 1

With the latest news on NRL Star Kieran Foran hitting the headlines in Australia, Gayelene gives her experienced insights on just how tough it can be for athletes to manage both family and a highly pressurised sports career and what can happen when it all begins to fall apart. Here we focus on the male perspective. We will follow up with the female perspective in the next article in this series on athletes and the family unit.

Strong marital relationships and social support are important protective factors against mental ill- health. When we love and feel loved, we are more able to transverse life’s challenges. What happens however, if a retiring male athlete has to concurrently manage the loss of his athletic identity, a relationship breakdown, reduced access to his children and a substantial loss of income?

Most fathers play a positive role in the development of infant/child attachment and fathers do worry about not being able to have consistent contact with their children post-divorce. Research tells us; “Marital difficulties may be the most common trigger for first-time depression in husbands…divorce amplifies depressive episodes, especially when children are involved.” (Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27:867–883, 2006)

There is limited research on the topic of divorce amongst elite athletic populations in Australia, but the following US statistic is interesting.

“Reports from a host of sources (athletes, players’ associations, agents and financial advisers) indicate that by the time they have been retired for two years, 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.”

This was a shared experience of former AFL star Heath Black;

“I retired early due to physical and mental health issues. I had three operations in as many weeks and as soon as I retired I was faced with a divorce, so all up I was really struggling. At first we worked on settling our finances without legal intervention, ironically I thought we had it all sorted, then the letter came from a lawyer. I let it sit there on my table for many, many months, I just didn’t want to open it. I knew I was looking at losing most of what I had spent 12 years of my life building.”

Heath Black AFLHeath Black

He elaborates even further by saying:

“My life was out of control, I was out of control and not turning up to court made me look ordinary, but I couldn’t face it. My accounts were frozen and I only had the kids with me for reduced periods of time. When we were together I found it easier to cope, when they weren’t with me I unravelled. It was a devastating time, being financially crippled and not having my kids more often felt like a dagger being twisted in my heart.”

Heath, now has full custody of his three children, but reflecting back he said it did not take long before the money ran out.

“The divorce and my inability to manage it better was embarrassing and degrading, it took 3 ½ years to settle. My ex-wife got 65% of my super and alimony was calculated on my previous income when I still had a lucrative professional contract as an AFL player, but post footy I was only earning $19.00 per hour. It didn’t take long before there was nothing left.”

When Heath was paying alimony it was up to $2000 per month in child support on a job that paid $19.00 per hour, when he gained full custody of his children he was awarded 50c a day.

If oxytocin – the love hormone, is a stabilising influence on women enjoying motherhood, then depriving or limiting a man’s access to his children through divorce is likely to have the opposite effect. An amicable separation is important not just for the children but the mental health and well-being of both parents.

Much has been written about the importance of identity complexity as a stabilising factor for athletes retiring from elite sport, but not enough has been done to keep families engaged in the conversation.

The stress of separation and divorce places both men and women at risk for psychological and physical health problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and psychosomatic problems.

In Australia alone, 2012 men completed suicide at a rate of over 5 per day, totalling 1901 that year. Comparatively the national road toll was 1310. Suicide was the number one killer of men under 44 years, with the highest death rate in the 35-49 years age group. There are a lot of good men and good fathers in the world grieving the loss of their families and access to their children, for many of our retiring athletes this loss can be devastating.

Organisations such as the ‘Dads in Distress’ are there to help.