This a Freakonomics Radio extra, our full interview with Domonique Foxworth, who appeared in bits and pieces in our “Hidden Side of Sports” series. I’ve known Foxworth for a while now; he’s one of the most thoughtful athletes I’ve ever encountered. But this conversation surpassed my already high expectations — not just his thoughtfulness but his willingness to wrestle with contradiction, and his hardcore candor. As you’ll hear in this episode, he was an N.F.L. player for several years, then served as president of the N.F.L. players’ union and, after getting an M.B.A. from Harvard, was the C.O.O. of the N.B.A. players’ union. It turns out he didn’t like that job too much; you’ll hear why. As the conversation begins, Foxworth is talking about his belief that the professional sports players’ unions should be dissolved. I asked why …
FOXWORTH: Yeah, where we are at, with professional athletes and how big a business it’s gotten, and how well they are compensated, I think it’s a product of sacrifices made by players coming up. And many players lost long seasons, were black-balled out of the league and had their careers really torn apart by their ambitions of free agency and pensions, and all those things. And they never really got to fully reap the benefits from that. And back in those days, the unions — the player unions were a lot like what we think of as traditional labor unions. But we’ve got to a point now where it’s not like that. And with the length of a player’s career, and how much money they could stand to make in a season, it’s really not in their best interest. Mathematically, logically, if you go through the numbers, it’s not in their best interest to actually withstand a lockout or to initiate a strike. They will not make that money back. It’s just physically impossible.
The reason why they would do it is to further the cause, I guess, for players in the future. But since you can’t hand your position down to your son or daughter, then it really doesn’t seem to make sense. So for me, I can use me as an example, I sacrificed from the time I was — I don’t know — probably in high school, is when I started to forgo other opportunities or other decisions to focus more on football. Then I’m in college and I wanted to be a computer — I did computer graphics and some computer science in high school, and then in college I wanted to be a computer science major, at University of Maryland. And my academic adviser was like, “That course load is going to make it very difficult for you to make our practices, there are labs, and blah, blah, blah, blah.” So I was like, “No, not going to do that.” During the summers, when there was —
DUBNER: So instead, you did — was it American Studies?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, I did American Studies.
DUBNER: And journalism, right? Which just shows how easy what I do is, that you could do it and another major while playing football. But anyway, go ahead.
FOXWORTH: No, I enjoyed those. And it was good, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. And in the summers when people were getting internships or whatever, I was working out and getting ready for football. And I say all that to say, once I got to the league, then I got drafted and I was in the third round, so that’s — it’s money, it’s good money, but it’s not life-changing money. It doesn’t makeup for all the things that you have given up through the course of your life. And then I come up on free agency, and that’s when I got a pretty nice deal. I can’t imagine if somebody was like, “No, you’ve got to sit out right now.”
And then when you think about it, it’s competition obviously, because you are competing in this lockout or strike with the owners, whereas it does make sense for them to withstand a lockout, because they own their teams into perpetuity so if they win a lockout for a tenth of a percentage point or even a whole percentage point of revenue split, that is something that will maybe be $3 million a franchise, for this season. And it will go up as things grow, and it goes on and on and on. So if you are in the old fashioned mindset of labor strikes is the only way to get anything, you are — players in all sports are severely mismatched.
DUBNER: It’s interesting to hear you say, though, that that would be the reason to maybe not have players unions, because a lockout or strike I guess — the lockout is what the owners do, a strike what the players can do — even a strike threat is rarely — is pretty rare. Once every whatever, five to 10 years, depending on when a given union’s collective bargaining agreement is up, right? So you I know — you were playing football in the N.F.L. when the lockout happened. It was 2011, right? And I know that the N.F.L. Players Association was basically telling you guys, “Put away as much money as you can, and maybe you might want to switch to regular gas from unleaded,” all this stuff. Can you talk about that experience and how you were thinking that might happen?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, I was heavily involved in the negotiations, so I remember that. I remember trying to get all the players ready. But the fact of the matter is, the players are severely outmatched if you’re going to try to match up with money, with owners. We’re not going to be able to outlast how long they can go without making money. As far as influence on the media, they have that also. And trying to fight them in that traditional way — you’re destined for failure. It would seem. The point of decertification is, as long as we have a union, we have to agree over collective bargaining. Once you dissolve the union, then you expose the league to anti-trust law, which frankly, the N.F.L. existed for several years very lucratively for the players without a union. And the league was exposed to antitrust law. That’s what precipitated free agency in football.
And the only reason why the N.F.L. Players Association was reconstituted was because the N.F.L. made it a stipulation of the settlement. You must reform a union to allow us to operate as a legal cartel/monopoly. That’s only reason why we exist, frankly and I was the president of the union. I was the C.O.O. of the N.B.A. Players for a time. And I recognize the union provides a great deal of value. But I think frankly that protection is more value to the leagues than it is to the players. In whatever job anyone has, in your job, they can’t institute a salary cap. They can’t do a draft and say like, “Hey, all the doctors that graduate this year, we’re going to draft you and tell you where you go.” You have some say in those things, because they are forced to abide by the regular laws that everyone else abides by.
DUBNER: Regular labor laws, not union provisions. Wow. So how would you have the scenario look? Every league’s different. But obviously, college football is this weird, unpaid, high risk — that’s a whole other financial ecosystem. Why don’t we just start with talking about how N.C.A.A. football works as a feeder system for the N.F.L., and what that does for or to the athletes.
FOXWORTH: I think we’re at a point now where most people kind of understand that college sports is professional sports. In select cases. So obviously, the vast majority of college sports are not professional sports. But the two kinds of big money sports, in the power five conferences, they generate a substantial amount of revenue, and that revenue goes to lots of people who are not the labor. So it goes to supporting other sports, it goes to building bigger and better facilities, it goes to paying college presidents and coaches and funding the N.C.A.A. It goes a lot of different places, but it doesn’t go to the people who are the labor on the field.
And another thing that complicates that — it would be a problem if that was the end of the story and every player then went on to have N.F.L. careers. It would be unfair, but whatever, you’re not going to lose any sleep for those guys. But the vast majority of the guys — and I have several teammates who, because it is not considered work, they’re not privy to workers compensation. They’re not privy to extended health care. So I have a few teammates who have torn A.C.L.s, separated shoulders, torn labrums and hips and shoulders, lots of injuries that — one of my best friends in college, I think it was a few years ago, his doctor told him that he was going to have to have both of his knees replaced by the time he was 50. And he didn’t play professional sports. He had three knee surgeries while in college. And there’s nothing that any college football team or governing body is going to do for him in that case. And that to me is tragic that a lot of people benefited from that.
And again, he had aspirations to play professional football. So while he was in college, he made all the decisions that people who have those aspirations do, where you don’t necessarily go after the major that you’re most interested in, or the major that’s going to lead to a career. You have the major that’s going to allow you to focus on what’s most important, which is sports, unfortunately. And I know many people would say that maybe that shouldn’t be so important, but it’s hard when that carrot’s out there, it’s hard to convince somebody to try to balance and try to do both things well, when it’s like, “No, I need to do as well as I can at this, because this is a life-changing opportunity, not just your life, but a generational shifting opportunity.” And you have a chance at it, and someone is going to tell you no? “How about you don’t go do that summer workout that’s going to get you closer to — how about you take an internship or something. How about you do take that tougher major.” You’re going to miss a few practices. The coaches may not start you. And it will stunt your development. That just doesn’t make sense.
DUBNER: So, the old fashioned argument for why this was okay and why it was acceptable was that, well, this is like what economists call a tournament model, whenever you got a lot of people competing for the top of the pyramid, whether it’s show-business or sports or, whatever, the bottom of the pyramid, there’s lots and lots and lots and lots of people there willing to do whatever it takes for practically no money. It’s this weird, unpaid apprenticeship. And I guess some people accept that as okay. Others don’t. But what strikes me that’s especially noteworthy about sports is the degree and magnitude of sacrifice, physical and otherwise, is larger, I would argue, than trying to become an actor, trying to become a writer, and whatnot. So can you just talk about that component of it a little bit more, and what you think would be a better solution?
FOXWORTH: Bringing up the tournament model is interesting, because I can understand how some people would look at that and say that it fits here and that’s why this is fair. But as a country, we’ve decided that that wasn’t fair a long time ago. That’s not — there are plenty of jobs where that’s true, just about every job. The barista at Starbucks. There are plenty of people out there who are capable of being baristas, and you could probably allow Starbucks to pit them against each other and negotiate down, down, down, down, down. But that’s not the case. We’ve instituted minimum wages and instituted lots of other laws to protect American people or American workers from these type of capitalistic urges run amok.
And the thing that’s frustrating to me is, we’ve instituted rules in professional sports, that happen to take place on college campuses. We instituted rules that are to the advantages of the institutions. But we are not interested in instituting any rules that are — that are things that we accept as just facts and fair. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone in our society that’s like, “No, let’s eliminate the minimum wage and allow this tournament model to run amok for low wage workers.”
DUBNER: Well the other argument though, in colleges, is — again this may be a purely specious argument from your perspective, maybe partially specious. But the other argument is, wait a minute. Free education, four years of college. What’s that worth?
FOXWORTH: So there’s two major issues that jump out for me from the education. The players are brought to the school because of their athletic prowess. There are many players who I’ve been around and I know that were not prepared to benefit. So, what they’re receiving is, steps 10, 11, and 12 when what they’re building on is steps 1, 2, and 3, if that makes any sense. So that education, frankly, is worthless to them. They’re in there trying to get eligible. And then there is the other people who show up who are prepared like me and like other people that then make all these decisions.
Because you’re not even getting the same education as the people around you, because you have to travel on Thursdays and Fridays, and you are not allowed to do certain majors because they conflict with your schedule. And three times a week, during the winter session or the spring session, you have to go to 5:00 a.m. workouts and that changes your academic experience. There are all these things that are mandatory because your scholarship is year to year, and you don’t have any power to negotiate with your coach and say things like, “I want to take this so I’m not going to able to go there.” That’s just not a thing that is available. So the education that they’re receiving is not the education that people think it is.
DUBNER: This is a gigantic question and it’s such a big industry already that there’s obviously no easy, quick solution that would satisfy even close to everybody, but what solution or solutions do you think are most viable that would, let’s say, keep big-time college sports intact in a way that the market would need them to be intact — in other words, there’s massive audiences out there that really like it — but all those dollars, as you’ve noted, don’t flow to the people who actually produce the labor. So what would be a way to equilibrate that a little bit, or make more people less unhappy at least?
FOXWORTH: The thing that frustrates me about that conversation is you’re always asked to add something, to change a rule to fix it. Whereas I feel we should blow it up altogether and follow, frankly, the model that this country has followed up until now, is that you strive for a free market and then you institute rules to make it fairer. So that’s where we should go. Let’s not try to add a rule or provide a stipend for players. No, let the schools go after these players the same way anyone else would go after any other employee. And then if we notice that there are issues along the way, then we can add rules to fix those. I think trying to inch our way back is not the way to get to the fairest possible system.
DUBNER: If you were going to blow up the system, would you even connect that pre-professional sports league, meaning college, would you even connect that to universities at all, or is that an accident of history that is the root of the problem, essentially?
FOXWORTH: I think it’s definitely an accident of history. I know you and your son are big soccer or footy fans —
DUBNER: You can call it soccer. That’s all right. That’s okay.
FOXWORTH: That’s not the model that they follow. This is a purely American model. This college athletics being a feeder system to professional athletics. And it’s probably — not probably, it is more unnatural, I would think, than these other systems. So I understand that it is the way that our country developed, and I understand the allure of being connected to a college that you went to, or a college you grew up around. And I’m not saying that you — you have to dissolve that altogether. You can allow them to — many of them, obviously they are nonprofit organizations, but they understand how to exist in a for-profit environment, they do go after different professors and they negotiate over those terms, this is something that they are accustomed to.
They negotiate with coaches, they don’t have to go that far — with their coaches and assistant coaches, they understand how the free market works. So Jimbo Fisher is a good example of it. He was the coach at Florida State. He brought them a national championship, and then Texas A&M offered him a better situation and he up and left, and then Florida State went and got Willie Taggart from Oregon. This is not something — while they want to pretend that it is a completely pure system, they know how this works, and every other year Alabama has to pay Nick Saban a little bit more to keep him at the top of the list. This is not something that that is brand new to them. I don’t see why it’s any different from going into a kid’s living room and saying, well, we want you to come here. We can offer you X, Y, and Z. But it just — it makes people feel uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
DUBNER: So it’s interesting — correct me if I’m wrong. I probably am, but it seems like there’s a weird paradox here. You’re calling for the decertification or the blowing up of professional sports’ players unions, because you feel they don’t really work well — work in the interest of the athletes who need to make their money now, careers being so short. But it sounds like college athletes have zero collective representation, and a union for them might actually do some good. Or do you think that’s not a solution?
FOXWORTH: No, I think that they’ve tried and failed. Ramogi Huma at one point was leading that effort, and it hasn’t worked. But I do think that them having a seat at the table with some leverage would be helpful, because any time you have — and this is what’s happened in college sports for a long time now, is you have a bunch of people in a room setting up the parameters of the game. But there’s one group — there’s only one group that’s not allowed in that room. And of course that — it’s just human nature. That group is going to be the group that is perpetually slighted. So I think that college athletes are in a different space than professional athletes. So having a union — if the college athletes could organize to the point where they would just stop showing up to games, and that’s an impossible thing to ask them, because again, it goes back to this is my one chance. But if they were able to at least threaten that, that’s how they could get some significant change.
DUBNER: So given the history and the dollars and the emotions that are attached to college sports overall, how likely do you see any kind of substantial evolution or change, even in the next 10 or 20 years?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it’s clear that the opinion in public is shifting towards wanting athletes to be fairly compensated. But I don’t know that they’re going to stop watching. So I don’t know where the pressure comes from, honestly. We’re already at a majority of society. I think it’s different across age and in racial demographics, but there will come a point, particularly as some young people get older, where all adults believe and accept that college athletes should be paid. But this ties into the union conversation. What is going to force them to act?
In the same way that a lockout or a strike is not necessarily going to force owners to act, in the same way that antitrusts or antitrust exposure would force them to act. This is true here too. I do think if collegiate athletes just stop showing up to big time games and tournaments, that would force them to act. But I don’t see them doing it because they only have four years of eligibility, which means they only have four years to show professional teams that they’re good enough to play. So it’s, again, not in their interest to do that. The only other thing is if the public stopped watching because of it, and I don’t necessarily see that happening, so I’m not sure how we get to this point.
DUBNER: The other thing that’s tricky is that the guys with the least incentive to change it are the ones for whom the system works, which is to say the stars in the system, right? If you really think that being a college athlete, whether in basketball for one year or football for three or four years, that you are going to have a professional career, you don’t want to rock the boat because you’re there now. So I don’t see how they would have an incentive to even pretend to want a change. Do you?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, I think you linking these two is very important, because it’s pretty accurate — it isn’t in their best interests. Those guys who are on the doorsteps of having professional careers, it’s not really in their best interest to stop this now. And you also bring into account the people who are benefiting most from it who are not on the field, there’s really no benefit to the coaches who — because coaches salaries are inflated because they have extra money, because they are not sending it to the players. And the rest of the teams who are funded by money generated by football and basketball. There’s no incentive there — there’s just the athletes who don’t have much power.
DUBNER: It is interesting that in the N.F.L., a coach might make a quarter or maybe even a tenth of what his top star player is making, right? But in college you make infinitely more because they’re all getting zero. If I were to think of someone who could try to get in there and navigate diplomatically and also bust skulls and who knows what they’re talking about, you’re the guy actually, because first of all, you’ve been a professional football player. You were also president of the Players Union in the N.F.L. But then, you’re the only person I know of at all — correct me if I’m wrong — the only person I know of who’s ever been associated with the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. as this chief operating officer for the N.B.A. Players Union, correct?
DUBNER: So you’ve got the two major college sports — you’ve got those credentials, right? You also happen to have an M.B.A. from Harvard. Yes?
FOXWORTH: That’s a thing.
DUBNER: That’s a thing. Am I wrong to think that you sometimes do think about being the person to try to go downstream from pro sports and into college and say, “Hey, if you actually want to treat people properly, the place to do it is here. And yes, we do need to blow up the system.”
FOXWORTH: I don’t, honestly. And maybe that’s yelling about unfairness from the sidelines and not necessarily getting involved, maybe that’s the wrong way to go about it. But I don’t know. I agree with you, it’s not complicated, but I do think it’s complex, and that can be intimidating, and I don’t know the way. You brought up business school. One of the things we, in the entrepreneurship classes that I took there, talked a lot about how little people know about what their business is going to become, and how many times it pivots and changes and how not knowing what you’re going to do is okay. It’s like you bet on the person more so than the idea. You bet that the person will figure it out.
I don’t have any clue, honestly, where to start with this, and that’s more intimidating. I feel pretty close to 85 percent confident about the idea that unions should decertify in professional sports, because I fully understand that. I’ve been through this and I know that if they operate as trade associations, they can still provide a lot of the services to players that players get from the union, and it doesn’t really hurt them. The scary part is, maybe you no longer have a league minimum for players, and that creates a tournament thing that you’re talking about. I understand the ins and outs, I understand that in a way that I don’t understand the landscape of college sports. I don’t know.
DUBNER: I guess I just look at it as a thought experiment. If you could take someone that doesn’t know anything about sports at all and say, “Hey, what if we have this system where workers are going to perform a set of tasks. Let’s say 50 hours a week, for four years, at this place, and then they’re going to perform essentially the same set of tasks in a different place. And in each case, 80,000 people come and watch them and millions more watch them on T.V. But in one case they get paid, let’s say, an average salary of whatever, $2, $3 million a year, and the other they get paid zero. And they’re the same people.” How — in what universe does that make any sense? That’s the thought experiment that I think would lead to a reassessment that —
FOXWORTH: That’s the thing it’s — another thing that I’ve come to learn in professional life is that logic is useless in some cases. The thought experiment that you just took me through is a wonderful one that proves the example, but people don’t act based on thought experiments. They act in reaction to incentives and pressure, and those sorts of things. So a couple of things that we talked about — and I think creating another place, creating real competition, because the fact that they are a monopsony now, meaning that they can — that’s the only place you can go — that exists in part because of the unions, both professional football and basketball. So basketball forces the players to be one year removed from high school, before they can enter the league, which forces them to then find an alternative. Maybe they can go overseas. But if they want to stay in America, they have to play college basketball.
Football is three years removed, and there is no real, viable, professional football leagues elsewhere, so you have to go to college. What the N.B.A. is doing now with the D-League, and they’ve started something called the Junior N.B.A., they’re building that infrastructure, whether intentionally or not. They are certainly building an infrastructure, infrastructure to create an academy system that is an alternative to college athletics and I know they’ve discussed the idea and they probably are going to remove the one and done rule in the next C.B.A. And some players will start going straight into these N.B.A. academies or into these D-League teams rather than going to college. And that might change the system. In football, I don’t think that there is much hope to change that anytime soon. I guess maybe if basketball changes then football has to change.
DUBNER: Well, what’s to stop me? Let’s say I’m an entrepreneur and I say, “The N.F.L. Players Association,” — which is a sworn enemy of the N.F.L. in many cases, in many instances, but they’re also colluding with them to basically get free labor for three or four years from all these athletes. What to stop me from saying, well, why don’t I work up an alternative and I will create some kind of league, that is pre-professional that would satisfy the N.F.L. draft rules, I guess. On the other hand, they can change those rules at will and put me out of business on day one, I guess, right?
FOXWORTH: Right. They could, but I don’t think they would. The major problem is network effects. You need to have a critical mass of the best players for the other best players to come, because the guys need to hone their skills and they need their skills to be matched up against other players, so that you can know. Maybe for basketball it might be a little different, because it seems to be that often they pick out those guys early on, and they turn out to be really good. But with football, if you get the top 50 players, top 50 incoming freshmen, to go build a league with you, which I think is — would be really hard to do. But if you do that, that’s still not even close to enough. You need them — and again, basketball, everyone plays the same position, everyone blocks, shoots, jumps, plays defense. Football it’s like, “Oh, so we’ve got to get —” It just seems like a really hard thing to do to build a real alternative.
DUBNER: Well let me ask you this: so the alternative to this, the purely cutthroat capitalist version, is the Academy model that soccer clubs around the world practice, right? And there, you’ve often got kids, very young kids, sometimes really — eight, nine, 10. But usually, 11, 12, early teens, going into academies and basically becoming sort of unpaid professionals, although not fully unpaid. And that is an alternative. But A, if you don’t make it into the professional level, which the vast majority, just numbers being what they are, won’t, then you have a weird — you’ve been removed from mainstream education and whatnot for a long time.
But also, I look at the flip side — you as an athlete and as a student, you may think it would have been better for you to have had the choice between professional sports and a career that was not sports. But on the other hand, you went to college and played sports. They went together. And then even though you say this system is not optimal for anyone, and certainly not for you, you graduated from Maryland. You played in the N.F.L. You had a union position, then in the N.B.A. as well. And then you got a Harvard M.B.A. So I could look at that and say man, I’m really glad that Domonique Foxworth was not sent to a football academy at age 13 to become a semi-professional. So now, maybe you’re just an outlier, but who knows.
FOXWORTH: So Jay-Z sold drugs, grew up in Marcy Projects to a single mother. Now he is a multi-multi-millionaire married to Beyonce, the most amazing talent we have today. So, why don’t we set it up so that all young men must sell drugs when they’re kids, and have only their mother and grow up in Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York? He had a great talent and to be honest, there’s probably a great deal of luck, he’ll speak to that, in that he happened to not be there when one of his friends got arrested, and his friend didn’t snitch on him. That is a lot of luck. And the same thing is true for me. I can go through the course of my life and look at all the things that happened that were just happenstance that led me to these positions, and I’m not going to say that it’s a model that should be followed. Just — I understand that there are occasional outliers, but trying to build around that seems crazy.
DUBNER: Let me ask you a very narrow specific question, but I’m just curious what you can tell me, because again, you’re one of the few people I know and maybe the only person there is who’s been in both the N.F.L. Players Association, had a position in that union, and a position the N.B.A. Players Union. So the two sports — even though we lump them together a lot— pro football and pro basketball — from a labor perspective, they’re pretty different, right? So there’s 53 on a team in the N.F.L. Just 12 in the N.B.A. But then additionally there’s visibility. We see the N.B.A. player — we see their faces. N.F.L. we usually don’t. And also the salary — average salary is much, much higher in the N.B.A., in part because there are so many fewer players for the money to go around. With all those differences between two sports that we tend to lump in together, what are the differences in either what the union tries to accomplish for those labor forces, or any other related differences?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, the power dynamics are obviously very different between the players in the union and the players in the league, and also consequently, the union and the league. LeBron James, he is more powerful than anybody, in the league, any owner, any team, anybody in the union, any player. He has more power and influence over that league than anybody else. There’s no one like that in the N.F.L. So that is — as are all things — it is a gift and a curse. There is a silver lining and a cloud that comes with having such a concentration of power and influence in any one person. So that changes the dynamics.
Fundamentally the things that the players want and that the union want to accomplish, they’re not very different. Honestly, they’re pretty similar in what you want to accomplish. But how you go about doing it is very different. So obviously, I wouldn’t speak about anything directly that I experienced while I was at either place, but this is one thing that I noticed, that, while working at the N.B.A. Players Association, was, the commissioner and LeBron James — the commissioner and Kevin Durant — they are more peers than anybody else. And they have a relationship, and they have conversations. That’s not something you have to concern yourself with. And frankly, when we were in negotiations, that was — it was nice to be able to actually be that liaison, when I was with the N.F.L. Players Association. The commissioner and the owners, they did not know how the players felt or what the players thought, unless they got it from us.
DUBNER: Do you attribute that difference, then, to the leverage that players have in part because basketball is different from football, or do you attribute that to some kind of either history or philosophy or economic leverage that N.F.L. owners have that is really different from N.B.A. owners?
FOXWORTH: Those all play a part in it. But fundamentally, it comes down to value, and I — while you brought up that there are fewer players in the N.B.A., and that’s part of the reason why the players get paid more. Yeah, that’s true. But LeBron James is more valuable to any single team as a talent or even as a marketing vehicle than anybody in the N.F.L. So that matters. You can go back through history and what Michael Jordan was able to create was a model, and player — he built on players before him, where the best basketball player is something that matters. And the best football player doesn’t matter in that way. I’m not sure that —I would also say that the person who is being most taken advantage of, honestly, in all of this, is probably Lebron James.
DUBNER: How do you mean?
FOXWORTH: The existence of the max salary in basketball — and again, we talk about these relationships and we often just talk about groups as if they’re monoliths, all N.B.A. owners feel like this. All commissioners and people in league offices feel like this. All players feel like this. All unions — it’s not true. The rise of the max salary was in part because the N.B.A. owners wanted to — and this was — max salary came before my time. But N.B.A. owners wanted to be able to control the salaries, because that’s who was driving the salaries up, is the best players — best players drive the salaries up. So N.B.A. owners want to be able to control that. And the middle class of players wanted to make more money.
So those guys’ interests were aligned in that case, let’s cap LeBron James, or let’s cap this guy, because that will take more money out of the system and put — allow the owners to put more in their pockets. But in a cap system if you have a floor, that also forced them to give more of it to us middle guys who aren’t really — so what ends up happening is, a lot of those guys get more than they, frankly, are worth. And LeBron James and people like him get a lot less than they deserve.
DUBNER: This happened in the N.F.L., too, didn’t it, right, with the different value attached to draft picks? Right? That year in the C.B.A., right? So all of a sudden the top draft pick was probably worth about a lot — 30 or 40 percent less than the same person had been a year before. Yeah?
FOXWORTH: I would quibble slightly with the word worth, and — paid, because I think the worth and how much they’re paid are two different things. But if you had a true — and the N.B.A. obviously has — the N.F.L. has a salary cap and the N.B.A. has luxury taxes and a cap which creates a de facto cap. And Major League Baseball, while it is uncapped, they still have instituted a number of rules that, last time I checked, the lowest percentage of league revenue goes to baseball players, while they have these enormous contracts, if you put together all the money that’s going to players, they are lowest of all the three major sports.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. Let’s say someone listening to you says to themselves, “I like sports. I played a little bit in high school, whatever, and I think it’s an amazing endeavor. Right? It scratches some itches that nothing else can. But I also like fairness and treating people with respect and also paying them what they’re worth. How do I reconcile that, as a fan of professional sports, and college sports, where you’re saying there’s all kinds of reasons to be frustrated, if not more than that?”
FOXWORTH: Frankly, you don’t. You don’t have to. It’s an interesting irony in that sports is a place that we consider a very controlled environment and it’s as close to a meritocracy as we have, and we feel like it is fairness. Whoever wins on the game, on the field, is the better team. You aren’t necessarily — and it’s not — obviously it’s not true in life. The people who win in life are disproportionately people who are from wealthy parents and who have certain connections — but you look at the field and we convince ourselves that once you step out there, it’s all fair, and it feels that way.
That doesn’t extend to the business of sports. And people who are interested in the business of sports, I certainly encourage them to learn more and to get involved in this, but the business of sports is much more business than it is sport. So I understand that there are lots of people who don’t care about this and aren’t interested in this, and I am not asking them to care or be interested. I just hope that they don’t get in with limited information. I love going to movies but I don’t necessarily want to get into the weeds of all the issues that happen in production.
DUBNER: Right. So talk for a minute about you as an athlete, as a kid, and I’m curious to know what the transition was like, when it went from something that you love to do — for whatever reasons you love to do it, whether it was pure fun or competition, or being good, whatever — the transition to when you realized it was something that was going to be a profession and a career, and how getting into the business of sport changed your view of it.
FOXWORTH: I was eight when I decided I wanted to be a professional football player. Actually, I was younger than that. I remember because we lived — my dad was in the military, so we lived a couple different places. And I remember being in an apartment we lived in in Indianapolis, and I told my father I wanted to be a professional football player, and he told me — I don’t know if he believed me or not, but I suspect that he didn’t — but he told me, “All right, well, you set a goal, you should do something to get you closer to that goal every day.” And I took that to heart. So I did a bunch of pushups and sit ups that night, until I was throwing up, it’s ridiculous. And then my father — I assume — tried to teach me about moderation the next day. Like, “Hey, why don’t you take some smaller steps?” I was in love with the game, in part because of how violent it was.
Honestly, whatever warped sense of masculinity I had at that age, that probably has not fully left me was like, “Basketball is for the soft kids. Football is for the men. And I want to play football.” And to get back to the original question that you asked, I don’t remember not thinking that I was going to go. It’s weird, I was young enough then to be naïve enough to think, “Obviously, I’m going to play in the N.F.L.” And as I got to an age to realize not everyone plays N.F.L., I also was one of the few kids who colleges wanted to talk to.
I think around high school, when — I worked from the time when I was old enough to — I was too old to go to summer camp — I started to work. And that was only two summers before colleges started inviting me to football camps. I would go to those football camps and realize, “Oh shit, this is an audition, this isn’t camp.” This isn’t football camp. I was 13 when I went to Art Monk’s full-pad football camp. And I didn’t get an invitation. I just wanted to go. And I still have the report card that they gave me that said that I maybe could play Division II college football. And then the next two —
DUBNER: How did you feel about that?
FOXWORTH: I was heartbroken and defiant at the same time. But everybody has these — those type of stories.
DUBNER: What position were you playing at the time?
FOXWORTH: I was playing running back and safety, which was probably part of the problem because they — they separated us by age at that point and not by weight. I was very small — too small to be a running back. So after that year, then at 14, I was old enough to work, so I worked the next two or then — yeah, I think I worked for — might have the years off, might have been 12 at Art Monk and then 13, 14, I worked. But anyway —
DUBNER: What kind of work did you do those summers?
FOXWORTH: I worked at a camp for disabled, a sleep away camp for disabled children and adults called Camp Green Top, the first year, which was a hell of an eye-opening experience, where you have to feed, bathe, change diapers of adults, chase them when they run off, and whatever. So that’s a whole other ball of wax. But then next year I worked at Dragon House Express, the Chinese food restaurant in the mall food court. And then the next year I got — started getting invited to football camps. And that’s when it started to become a business. When I showed up and I was like, “Oh, they’re evaluating me, this is how I can get a scholarship or cannot get a scholarship. This is where the dream either continues to go forward or dies.”
DUBNER: And then how did that realization affect your performance?
FOXWORTH: It worked out, so I guess it helped.
DUBNER: Were you intimidated a little bit, or were you more like, “Oh, now I get it. Now this is my business and I’m going to win.”
FOXWORTH: Yeah, I do my best to be honest and not paint this picture of — I feel it’s easy for me to say, “No, then I turned it up another level.” Which can’t actually be true for a 15-year-old kid who knows that his whole life is riding on how well he does at Duke football camp or whatever. So I’m sure I felt some anxiety and some nervousness. But I pushed it down I guess, and I did well enough to get their attention. But it also felt like the pressure that I wanted, you know? I wanted to be a professional football player — I wanted for my play to matter. And obviously it felt like it mattered in my little Pop Warner games, whatever. I’d cry when we lost. But I knew that nobody cared in the world. But then, those were real stakes. And I was like, “Yeah, this is real.”
FOXWORTH: Were there other kids from those camps that you remember who also went on to play in the N.F.L.?
FOXWORTH: Probably. The one person I remember — I went to Penn State’s football camp and I remember Adam Taliaferro, who was older than me. He was the big guy on campus at the time, and he was their big recruit. They really wanted him. And I remember befriending him. He was a few years older to me, befriending him and looking up to him and being like, “Oh, this is cool. This big time guy who was on the cover of all these newspapers, we’re friends.” And then he ended up going to Penn State and playing safety, I believe, and was paralyzed. And yeah, that’s a whole other avenue to go down.
DUBNER: Yeah. Well, let’s go down that avenue for a minute. You were relatively injury-free during high school and college. And when you would see other guys getting hurt or in an extreme case like Adam, getting paralyzed, what’s your response to that? How do you react?
FOXWORTH: It goes back to my warped ideas of masculinity, as much as I’ve gotten older and try to suppress them. At that point, it was still there. And probably — not probably, it still is in me at some point. Hopefully I’ve stifled some of it now. But it was like, “Yeah, I play this game, and yeah, people get paralyzed —” I’ve been on the field a couple of times when people have been paralyzed. I played in a preseason game in the N.F.L. where a guy died in a locker room afterwards. I was on the field when Kevin Everett was paralyzed. We had practice at Maryland where a helicopter came to take one player off the field and the coach said, move it down, and we kept doing the drills as a helicopter was taking one of our teammates who couldn’t move to the hospital. He ended up being okay. But these are all things that happened.
And I do remember — I think I was 11 years old. Pop Warner, we were playing against this other team that had a really good running back. We were tackling the running back. I hit him in his leg and it was so many people on him. He hit the ground and it popped, and he screamed, and we all got up and the bone was sticking through his skin, and it was broken, obviously. And we all went to the sideline and we’re broken up and we’re crying and stuff. And it took awhile to get him off the field and the coach was like, “We got to finish the game.” And that always stands out in my mind as a turning point, where I was like, “This is what you’re into, and this is what you’re going to be confronted with. And from that point forward, I don’t think I was aware of those things, but it never really bothered me — if anything it was a badge of honor. Yeah, I know this crazy stuff happens, and I go out there and do it anyway because I’m a man, or something like that.
DUBNER: You go out there and do it and you don’t get hurt doing it. But then you did start to get injured as a pro. Can you talk about your first significant injury there?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it was tough. From a professional standpoint more than anything. I was fortunate that it didn’t happen a year sooner, or or two years sooner.
DUBNER: Well, this is tied to the money, right?
DUBNER: So let’s walk people through this, because a lot of people don’t understand how money works in the N.F.L. You were drafted I believe 2005, third round. Right? So what I’m looking at here, you were paid for that year, including a signing bonus, which was a lot of it, about $660,000 — that sound about right for year one?
DUBNER: Okay. And then I guess back then, it was a three-year rookie contract. Is that right?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it was a three-year rookie contract, with the fourth year option, I believe.
DUBNER: Gotcha. Okay, so looks like your first three years paid you a total of about $1.5 million. Most places in the world, that’s amazing. And those first few years were in Denver.
FOXWORTH: Yeah. So I went through the first three years, and then I was coming up on a contract year and I played pretty well in Denver, and I knew that I needed to play well in this year because if you don’t, then the salary minimum goes up for guys after that point. So then they just go get a younger one, and you — and you go on with the rest of your life. So during week one, we’re getting ready for the first week of a season in Denver. They traded me to Atlanta. Atlanta was a terrible football team at that point. It was a year after Vick was gone and they just drafted a rookie quarterback who no one thought was going to be very good. That was the first time when I considered going to business school. My girlfriend at the time, who is my wife now, I remember talking to her then like, “Yeah, this don’t look like it’s going to work out,” and I’m having to think about business school because I got traded on week one. You normally earned your position during training camp. I skipped training camp. This team is going to be terrible. I’m not going to play. And then I’ll be out of the league. But —
DUBNER: That year you got paid a little over $900,000, but you must have a pretty good year, because the next year you signed a contract with Baltimore that paid you in year one, $8 million, year two, $9.2, and year three, $4.4 — does that sound about right?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it was a four-year, 27, I think. In Baltimore. And then the first year, I struggled at the beginning of the season but I was playing really well towards the end of the season. And Baltimore is the city I grew up in. So it was cool. And then when we have Super Bowl aspirations, and I’m playing well coming into the next season, and I tore my A.C.L. on the first day of training camp, and I was never the same. So that was — it felt like my career, with all the uncertainty and the, frankly, fear that I felt going into year four in Atlanta, I was the most confident that I’d ever been. And I was like, “Oh, this is perfect, I am a Baltimore guy. Back in Baltimore. Playing well. Super Bowl contender. We’re going to win the Super Bowl. I’m going to have a great season. I’m going to go to the Pro Bowl, this is — I’m playing as well as I ever have.” People are starting to recognize that I’m good and everything is starting to fall into place — and then the A.C.L. pops.
Frankly, that’s what led me to take on more leadership in the players association and led me to be involved in the negotiations, which then is what I used, frankly, it was the big piece that got me into business school, because I didn’t have the grades or the background to get into business school. But no one has experience like that, who’s going to business school. So that’s what, frankly, got me into Harvard Business School. So it still turned out to be a good story. But at the time it was — I don’t know. Obviously I would not say that it was a depression by any stretch, but I do remember my wife — and I think she was still my girlfriend then — telling me like, “Go get a haircut,” because I was just sitting around the house, going to rehab twice a day, and coming home and sitting in front of the T.V., just no shave, and no nothing.
DUBNER: What got you out of that?
FOXWORTH: I think it’s the opportunity to do — to be involved in the C.B.A. stuff — it gave me a purpose.
DUBNER: Right. It’s lucky you were near D.C. — did that matter?
FOXWORTH: Oh yeah. That absolutely helped and lucky that I already had relationships there and I was involved, and I was already in a leadership role. But I was given so much more time because of it.
DUBNER: So that four year contract you signed with Baltimore in 2009, it was a four-year, $27.2 million contract. How much of that did you actually collect?
FOXWORTH: All of it.
DUBNER: You did. Did you have it guaranteed even though you didn’t end up playing out the whole contract?
FOXWORTH: So I was on the team for three years, so I got those three years, and then the fourth year I got — I had taken out an insurance policy. So I got the rest of it there. That’s why I said earlier, I was fortunate that the knee injury happened after I signed that deal, because if it would have happened when I was in college, or happened a year earlier, I would have been on an entirely different path, which may have turned out to be great, but I really like where I’m at now.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this: generally, how did the reality as an N.F.L. player match your expectations? You’re a kid who, as you told us, from the age of eight or earlier, was seeing yourself playing in the N.F.L. And then you get there. Now it really, really, really is business. So I’m curious to know about that.
FOXWORTH: My freshman year in college, I started towards the end of the season, we played well, we won the A.C.C. championship. We went to the Orange Bowl and lost, and then immediately after, my head coach got a $10 million extension, and that was when I was like, “Oh, we aren’t a team, we’re a business.” And that was when the light went on for me. I don’t know that I would wish it any different. But that’s the thing that sucks the most, is that when you feel like you’re a part of a team and you still have that camaraderie and love for your teammates, but you also in the back of your mind, you are also thinking like, “Hey, I’m out for myself.”
I remember when — Denver, I had a really good rookie season and then my second year was okay, then I was scheduled to be the starter opposite Champ Bailey, the other corner, the next season. And they went and traded for Dre Bly, and I love Dre. He and I became good friends. But it was not lost on me that Dre was messing with my money, and my opportunity, and that sucks. It’s not fun to be in that situation. It’s not fun to feel that. I didn’t consider that, because I used to watch every Saturday and Sunday morning, they would do these N.F.L. yearbooks on E.S.P.N. and they would run them back to back to back, and I would get up and watch them all the time. And those do such a great job of telling the story of football. And I believed it, which is not to say that it’s not true, but it is incomplete.
DUBNER: Is part of that story when the new kid comes to camp or somebody is traded, that everybody tries to help them fit in, even though there is competition for the job, is that part of the story you’re saying?
FOXWORTH: That’s definitely part of the story, and it’s not untrue, because we do help each other, we do care about each other and we are a fraternity, look out for each other. But we’re also aware that it’s a business. There’s only a certain amount of money on the salary cap — and you recognize as you get — you recognize, “All right, if this doesn’t work out, what am I going to do?” If it didn’t work out in Atlanta, and I was out of the league after a year, I’d have been a 26-year-old with no real experience.
Being a football player does not qualify you to do anything, short of being a bouncer, I guess. And — no real experience, and I’m so far removed from college that it’s like, “What am I going to do?” And I have a bank account that is much larger than most of the other 26-year-olds, but still got a whole lot of life left to live, and it’s not a great situation to be in. It’s not awful, obviously, but you do feel that pressure. You’re thinking about that and you’re thinking about if you have kids at the time, or if you have family members that are depending on you, you’re like, “Oh, well as much as I love this guy, as much as I want him to do well. I need this.”
DUBNER: And what was Ashley — your then-girlfriend, now wife, what was she — what was her position now? Because I know Ashley a little bit, and I know that she’s not one to let things happen as as they’re going to, right? She’s like, “Have a plan. Make it work.” What was her advice to you?
FOXWORTH: I don’t think she gave me much advice at the time. She was in law school at the time. And she’s much smarter than me. I know a lot of people say that because it seems like the nice thing to say.
DUBNER: No offense, I’ll say, it’s pretty obviously true. She’s obviously very smart.
FOXWORTH: She went to — we met at Maryland and she went to the law school at Harvard, well before I went to the business school up there. But she — I was more stressed than she was.
DUBNER: Do you think in the back of her mind, she’s thinking, “It’s okay, because I’m going to be a lawyer and I can carry him if I need to.” Do you think that was part of it?
FOXWORTH: I don’t think so. Honestly. I don’t — as she tells it now, is she knew that I was going to be successful, and that was one of the things that was attractive.
DUBNER: You mean beyond football, or in football?
FOXWORTH: No, just in general. I don’t think she knew that I was going to be successful at football. I don’t think she knew what I would do professionally. But the way that she tells it is, she knew that I would be successful. So that was why she was not concerned. But I didn’t know that.
DUBNER: Does that say more about her or about you? In other words, does it say more about her like, “The kind of man I’m going to pick, I’m not going to pick someone who’s not going to be successful.” You think it was more —
FOXWORTH: You’ve been hanging out with her, because that’s the story that she tells. I think that she — those are things that I think she found most attractive about me, I was mature and focused and the idea that — the example of it is, I was already looking at business schools because I had already — I was obviously going to be all-in on this season. I’m going to make the season work. But I know that there’s a possibility it’s not going to work, and I’m not going to — I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and be like, “Oh, now what?”
DUBNER: Yeah, yeah. What about — did you ever think about politics?
FOXWORTH: I’ve been told that a lot. And I guess I’ve given it some thought. No more than a couple of hours. And I hate it.
DUBNER: Because why?
FOXWORTH: It seems terrible, because it seems you — well, the money in politics is one thing. You’re constantly fundraising. You’re not actually getting to affect any change — and I guess it depends on what level of politics you’re going to, or whatever, but it often feels like a trophy head, and to be a good politician, you are always looking for the next angle, the next office, or the next person who’s going to give you some money. I don’t know, that does not interest me at all.
DUBNER: So you’re a little ways into your athletic afterlife. Now, you’re about 35 years old, is that right Domonique?
DUBNER: So you’ve been out of football for several years now, Where do you feel you are in your athletic afterlife, are you still at the beginning? And I’m curious to know what you see — how you see it playing out.
FOXWORTH: So I was president of the players association of the N.F.L. while I was playing, and after business school, I went to the N.B.A. Players Association, and I — I am in a weird state, frankly. I don’t know how to — it feels like a state of transition, which — but it feels like I shouldn’t be in a state of transition, if that makes any sense. So my whole life since I was a kid was very — I had a very clear goal and I worked towards that goal. And I made lots of decisions that would get me closer to that goal, but get me further away from other important and interesting things, including friends, including family. And then I was like, “I’m done playing.” So I will be in this state of transition, business school was like, “All right, this is my transition state, and then I’ll take this job at the N.B.A. Players Association and then I’ll be back to a steady state.” But I didn’t like it, and I left.
DUBNER: Because why? The N.B.A. position?
FOXWORTH: Yeah. I was the chief operating officer there, and there was a lot of things going on at the time, a lot of transition there. But being a chief operating officer was something that sounded good and paid well and I was very proud of. But it’s a lot of operating, frankly, which is — I remember living in New York, and my wife was pregnant with our third child, and she was not feeling good, and I was getting up at 6:30 a.m. to ride the subway to work with a bunch of other people who weren’t happy about where they were going to work. And I’d be there until 7:00 p.m. at night working, working, working, working. And I remember being on the subway thinking, “Am I happy? I have enough money that I don’t have to be unhappy. All these people who are on here with me, they have to go to work. And I don’t have to go to work.” So then I quit.
And I started writing for fun, and that’s what landed me at E.S.P.N. But to be completely frank with you, there’s some focus and clarity that scarcity brings to your life, and I don’t say this because I want to go back to a state when I was not sure, financially. I like being in a comfortable financial state. But there’s something to be said for the focus and clarity of, “Oh no, I’ve got to do this, because I got to feed my family.” And when you don’t have that focus and clarity, there’s something a bit frightening, honestly, about always feeling like, “What should I be doing with this gift, frankly, that I have? This gift of of flexibility and independence?” And sometimes in the job that I have now, I went to business school in part because I fancy myself as a smart person who is more than an athlete. And I wanted to get away from this, so there’s parts of me that’s embarrassed that I write about sports. Talk about sports.
But then there’s parts of me that’s like, “This awesome. It’s kind of flexible. I get to do fun things. I get to be — pick up my kids from school and take them to school.” And so it just depends on the day, where sometimes I’m like, “I should be chasing some big professional glory, and I’m wasting time. Or some days I’m doing just exactly what I should be doing, or well, I should be spending more time with my kids and my wife because I have this flexibility.” So when you have that scarcity to focus your thought, it’s very clear what you should be doing. And it’s an interesting thing to happen to somebody at this age. It feels more of a midlife thing. And for athletes it’s a unique thing. Successful athletes, it’s a unique thing, that in your 20s or 30s. You’re like, “Now what?”
DUBNER: Now, everything you said just makes sense to me, but I’m also curious if there’s one more element that plays into that, which is that sports is maybe singularly thrilling to do. And I say maybe — if you play music at a high level — it’s probably silly to say that sports are the only one — but because of the nature of what it is and the competition, it’s thrilling. Look how thrilled people are to watch it. And you guys are the ones who are doing it. And I just wonder if part of what’s contributing to your sort of malaise is just the possibility that that thrill is irreplaceable.
FOXWORTH: I think that’s a reasonable thing to think. But it doesn’t feel like that to me. I don’t feel like I’m missing that thrill, it’s not something that I feel I want. The feeling of uncertainty is the feeling that I have more than anything. It’s not like, “Oh, my life is boring.” It’s like, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the best thing I can with this fortune and situation that I’m in?” And where it is connected to sports in some way? What also exacerbates it, I think, is a feeling of loneliness, honestly, which — I have three kids and my wife, and I’m not alone, obviously. And I love them and have fun with them.
But throughout my life, I have been almost myopically focused on a goal, which — being focused on that goal gave me purpose and I’m sure I’m going to butcher the Nietzsche quote, but it’s something to the effect of, “When a man has a why, he can bear almost any how.” And I don’t drink now, I never drank in my life. I never smoke weed. I was singularly focused on doing everything. Every decision I made was like, “All right, I’m going to get closer to his goal.” And the people I was close with in high school, those aren’t my friends anymore. People I was close with in college, not really my friends anymore. And then at 35, I’m in D.C. where my wife has a bunch of family and friends, friends that she’s been close with since they were in the second grade, and I’m like, “I don’t really have that.” And I was making these choices, which I thought were choices to get me —
DUBNER: What you wanted.
FOXWORTH: Right. And I wasn’t — there were choices that I was making that I was unaware that I was making. I didn’t realize at the time that I was foregoing long lasting relationships. And I think lots of athletes do the opposite and bring their friends and family along with them, and then they are making a decision. And there are a whole other whole mess of problems that you get from that. So there is no right way to do it. And I am very happy with where I’m in my life. And while you’re a professional athlete, you walk around with this skepticism, frankly, of all new people in your life. So even if there was the potential for some great friendships, I wasn’t open to them.
I’d go to these places, people are like, “Oh, football player,” and I’d pretend and be nice to them because that’s what you do, and they pretend or whatever to be into me, because that’s what you do, and then you move on. And then you’re 35, and you’re like, “Hey, you haven’t talked to your best friend from high school in 10 years, or something like that.” So I certainly don’t feel sad or anything, but these are things that I am becoming more aware of now. I said to my wife a couple of days ago that I feel I’m in a perpetual state of transition, which is interesting and uncomfortable at the same time.
DUBNER: What are some of the other things you’ve tried? You mentioned the N.B.A. Players Association job. What are some other things that you tried that you thought would make you excited or happy, and didn’t?
FOXWORTH: So, it’s not that they didn’t, it’s that they — that they don’t. It’s — so I mentioned, it’s no matter — and I’m starting to understand that — and this goes back to the scarcity point, where if there is something there to make the decision for you it feels somewhat easier. But I imagine that everyone can relate to this, that when you’re at work sometimes, you’re like, “Man, I really wish I was with my kids. I really wish I was partying.” Or when you are with your family, you’re like, “Man —” Particularly if you like your job, you want to be at work, or you might want to go on a guys trip or you might want to go on a romantic vacation with your wife, there’s so many things that you want to do. But there are things for so many people that they have to do.
So when I’m in this position where it’s like, “All right, I want to do this and then I’m doing it, but I want to do some of that.” It even breaks down into professional where it’s like, “All right, I want to just chase professional glory. I want to work my way up to the top of some company.” And I’m capable of doing that, I feel like I have the intelligence or charisma and pedigree, academically, to get in those positions, but that requires you to not be home a lot. And there’s part of me that wants that, but then there’s part of me — I want my kids to look back and be like, “Hey, my dad picked me up from school a couple of days a week.” I don’t know.
DUBNER: So this ambivalence, you never had any of this, though, when you were chasing the N.F.L. dream, did you?
FOXWORTH: No, this is brand new. It was quite clear to me that there were two things: I need to get paid, and we need to win. And anything that was not in line with that was like, “All right, obviously I don’t need to do this.” And maybe I was a more extreme version of it than a lot of people, to the point that I don’t drink and stuff. I don’t have some religious thing against drinking, I just never have, and I didn’t — when I was in high school and probably a lot of people start, because I’m like “No, it’s going to make me a worse football player.” And one of my best friends in high school actually sold drugs, and got a little bit of time for it. And when he was selling and occasionally smoking, I was like “No, I’m a football player.” Even our presidents, over the years, have experimented with marijuana. It feels like for me — and some even cocaine. For me it was like, “No, there’s one thing to do”. And now I’m at this point where I don’t really know how to have fun. I don’t really have super close friends, and I don’t really know what to do with my life. But I’m pretty happy still.
DUBNER: So it sounds to me at least that you built an identity that was focused, really strongly focused on football. But there are a million parts of what identity means, it means who you know and what you do with them, and what you put in your body, and so on. And now, you still have the identity, but you don’t have the thing that you built it for. It’s got to be a little baffling in a way. You are the person you made, to succeed, and then you did succeed, and now it’s like, “What next?”
FOXWORTH: Most people’s journeys are so much longer that when they do succeed, they die a few years after or something.
DUBNER: That’s your problem. Yeah. That’s what’s always attracted me about the idea of the afterlife of an athlete, is it’s unnatural. Most people, they pursue something for their whole life, or it’s not so specific that they basically are told to stop doing it when they’re 35, because they’re too slow. And yet, you can’t ask — you got a lot of money in the bank, you can’t ask people to feel sorry for you on that front.
FOXWORTH: I’m certainly like this — to be clear, this conversation is not at all about me wanting sympathy or feeling sorry.
DUBNER: No, no, I didn’t mean to imply.
FOXWORTH: There’s nobody that I want to trade places with. But I just — that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things —
DUBNER: You have a serious case of “grass is greener”-ism, it sounds like.
FOXWORTH: It feels that way, right? To the point that you made about the — I am the person that I’ve made. One of my classes in business school, one of the — it was surprising. I went to business school before — after I finished playing, I went to business school because I was like, “All right, now I’m going to keep competing. I’ll go to the best business school and I’m going to turn this 27 into 200.” And then I got there. And surprisingly, as I’m sure Harvard has a bad stereotype or a bad reputation for creating money-hungry people with low ethics, I’m sure there are plenty of them coming out. But I was surprised with how many mushy, soft classes that we had. That were about our feelings and integrity and all that stuff.
And I do remember one professor who said that — it wasn’t to me directly, it was just to the class, but it felt like he was talking to me directly. And I didn’t really like this professor necessarily, so I hate to give him credit. But he said something to the effect of, “The operating system that you used to get here may not be the operating system that you need going forward.” And that resonated with me, because I feel that’s definitely true for me. But I don’t know, they don’t just release updates for humans. So like, modifying my operating system is a slower and more challenging process.
DUBNER: Right. What was the professor’s name?
FOXWORTH: I don’t remember. I didn’t like him because on the first day he said to me — obviously, I was the football player there, and that was part of my identity. He sized me up and was like, “Aren’t you kind of small for a football player?” I was like, “I will whoop your ass in this classroom.” But he was actually a pretty good professor.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. You are a scholar, at least an amateur scholar, of the civil-rights movement. Can you just talk for a second about the relationship between the civil rights movement per se and sports, areas where there’s overlap, maybe where one movement is way ahead or behind of the other. And I’ve certainly got in the back of my mind the anthem protests that are a big piece of this conversation right now. I’m curious to know what you have to say about that.
FOXWORTH: At least in America, there’s something black about professional athleticism. The players are largely black and — particularly in the Big Two sports, a lot of the culture that seeps out of the game into our pop culture comes from black players and there’s a lot of people who want to separate race from sports. And they say they want to go back to how it was when race and sports were separate, but it never was. It always has been intertwined — race is probably the most, particularly in America — the most defining characteristic of our country is how we have dealt with race. And it is always involved in everything.
Obviously, there were the ‘60s. Obviously, no one can say that race and sports weren’t connected. But people point to the periods after that from the ‘70s, ‘80s, to the ‘90s, and they would say that those were times when race and politics and social issues were not in sports. But I still think they were, because the players were still dealing with it. Whether the media was putting attention on it or whether people were willing to address it or talk about it, it was a thing that was always there. So that frustrates me. So I don’t necessarily feel — while I do accept that we’re in a state now as a country where it is unavoidable, the intersection, I don’t feel like it ever went away. It’s not a new intersection, it’s just I happened to be on that corner altogether, at once.
DUBNER: It’s funny you say that because the thing that struck me most about when Colin Kaepernick first decided to protest police violence by sitting and then kneeling during the anthem, the thing that struck me is it felt so mild compared to some past protest moves, like the 1968 Olympics. That was a big deal. And then it also struck me — the response also struck me as so overwrought, that again, it felt pre-’60s in a way. Haven’t we done this, and shouldn’t the conversation be way ahead of this? But maybe that’s because it is at the end of the day, all about just race, and not even race in sports, race in politics, etc. Do you think that’s what it’s really about?
FOXWORTH: Yeah. It’s not about the issues, it’s not about the posture you take when you are — when the national anthem is being played. It’s something that I — As a father, I’ve come to recognize that adults aren’t very different from children. Adults learn how to justify and how to validate their actions and decisions. Whereas if my son does something ridiculous and I ask him why he looks at me like I’m crazy like, “How you ask me why?” Or he’ll just say, “I took a cookie.” And, why? “I wanted a cookie.” Okay. Yeah, that’s fair. And I think that people to a certain degree, even if it is subconscious, they do what feels right, or what makes them happy or what makes them feel good, and then they’re like, “All right, now let me concoct this post-hoc justification whether it’s conscious or unconscious.” And I think that’s what’s happening.
And we see it with the anthem stuff. It’s like, “All right, sitting down during the anthem is a problem. And then you move from there to kneeling — so kneeling is then a problem. Raised fist is a problem and now we see that staying in the locker room is a problem.” Let’s just be honest about it. You don’t like these people making any statement and it makes you uncomfortable and you don’t like it. So you’re not going to like it no matter how they get it across. There’s no — and that’s one of the things that’s been most frustrating about this is they’re like, “No, I understand. But this is the wrong time or this is the wrong way.” No, there is no right time. There is no right way.
“You should be more like Martin Luther King.” Martin Luther King was assassinated and a large majority of white society was not happy with him advocating for advanced rights. I don’t know. It just feels like no matter what, there are people. And it’s a trap that we often get caught in, and not just in this case, but just in general, where it’s like, “All right, we’re going to try to satisfy everybody or we’re going to try to satisfy this group.” Some people don’t want to be satisfied. They want to be angry, let them be angry.
DUBNER: If you were still playing in the N.F.L. and first day of the season happens —
DUBNER: What do you do during the anthem?
FOXWORTH: I think at this point you probably stand up because there’s not much. It’s easy to say now. I don’t know. So I’d like to say that I would be in solidarity with those guys and I would have the courage to expose myself to the hate that they’re receiving. But I don’t know. It’s easy to say now. From the sidelines.
DUBNER: I’m just going to ask one last question if I can. Two part question. No. 1, you played professional and college and high school football. So you can’t not think about long-term brain damage, since that’s a big piece of all conversations about football these days. So I’m curious to know whether you feel a little bit like you’re living with a time bomb in your head. And related to that, I’m curious to know what happens if and when your son wants to play football.
FOXWORTH: So I’ll take the second one first. Slightly easier. He’s only five now and I say no. It’s not a problem that we’re actually facing at this point, but I would say no.
DUBNER: So if he comes to you and says, “Hey Dad, I know before I was born, you were an amazing N.F.L. player, great career, etc. What do you mean, no? What are you talking about?”
FOXWORTH: I think the research wasn’t there. I suspect my parents would not have let me play when I was that age, if there was information available. And it’s not even clear information. But what is clear is that it does put you at a higher risk. Like, my son doesn’t need those things. The best case scenario is that you play professional football and you make a lot of money. I wasn’t — I was far from poor growing up, like middle class, but I went to Baltimore County public schools. That’s not my son’s experience. I didn’t have access to the things that he’ll have access to. So I frankly think that he is starting in a much better place than I am, so he should do much better than banging his head into other people’s heads for money. It seems like a step back to me, honestly.
DUBNER: On a macro scale, does that mean that as football goes forward, and I guess if football goes forward, which obviously in the short term it will, but in long term it’s a question, does that mean that the only people that play it are going to be the people who need to play it to try to make the money that they can’t make otherwise?
FOXWORTH: Feels like outside of the quarterback position, it’s already gravitated to that, both prior to now.
DUBNER: But you’ve got guys, the San Francisco 49ers for instance, they have a few guys who’ve had a lot, there have been a lot in the league, who went to Stanford. So these are football players that go to Stanford to get a Stanford degree. There’s a lot of ways they can now make a living. So there’s obviously more about the appeal of playing at that level than just making the money, yeah?
FOXWORTH: Football players, athletes are still heroes in our society. And it’s something that people, particularly young boys, will aspire to. I understand that. But I do think that the danger is something that’s going to push people away from it in a way that it drew people to it in the past, so it’s not — football is not by any stretch dead, and there is still hope that they could find ways to modify the game or improve equipment or whatever and make it safer, but until they do, I don’t see why my son needs to play. But I don’t judge anybody else. Your son can do what you want your son to do. That’s just not for my son.
DUBNER: And then what about you? Do you worry about your brain? Does your wife worry about your brain?
FOXWORTH: Absolutely. I do. It’s something that I think lots of players talk about and think about. And every time there is — It could just be general aging, you don’t know where your keys are. It’s like you’re living a horror movie honestly, where it’s this thing lurking in the background, that you hear noises but you don’t necessarily know if that’s just a regular noise or if that is a monster. And that’s what I analogize it to, where it’s like all right, I can’t find my keys. That to me feels like “Oh, is this a signal? Or is this just something, whatever?” It’s scary. And what is most frightening is, right now, I would do it all over, because of what it’s done for me and my family.
And I think most players would agree with that, except for the ones who killed themselves. I have been sad before, obviously, but I don’t know that darkness, I don’t know. I’ve never ever in my life gave any realistic consideration to ending my own life and trying to — and I invite you or anybody else to try to wrap your head around how sad, depressed, how dark you must feel to see death as relief, as a way out. And I imagine if I were ever to feel that way, or for people who do feel that way, they don’t say like, “I would go back and do it all over again.” I would imagine in that moment they would give up all the fame, all the money, all the success, all the women, or whatever else, all the trappings of this, to not be in a place where you feel like the only exit is to end your life. So that’s very dark and very difficult to deal with, but I’ve never been there. I hope never to get there. But until then, I feel like I’m happy with the decisions that I’ve made and I will continue to live as happy and productive a life as I can.
DUBNER: Well on that note, let me just thank you for a really great conversation and wish you and your family all the best, and I hope you find the greenest pasture possible.
FOXWORTH: And then find a greener one.
That was Domonique Foxworth; on Twitter, he’s @Foxworth24. Hope you enjoyed this full conversation; he appears throughout our “Hidden Side of Sports” series, including episode numbers 349, 351, and 365. Thanks again to him, and thanks to you for listening.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. Our “Hidden Side of Sports” series was produced by Anders Kelto and Derek John, with lots of help from Harry Huggins, Alison Craiglow, and Alvin Melathe; we also had help from Rebecca Douglas and Nellie Osborne, and our staff includes also Greg Rippin, and Zack Lapinski. The music you hear throughout our episodes was composed by Luis Guerra. Our show can also be heard on NPR stations across the country — check your local station for the schedule — as well as on SiriusXM, Spotify, and even your better airlines!