In college, Josh Martin tried to answer a question that baffles many students: what’s next?
Martin played soccer for Columbia University from 2009 to 2012 but didn’t expect his career to be one of tackles and sacks. He was studying anthropology and considering law school, but a sports student advisor told him he didn’t have the grades to get into a top program.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do after school,” said Martin. “I didn’t really have any career goals. That was a problem for me in college. I didn’t have that sense. “
The consultant recommended that Martin and his teammates sign up on LinkedIn to start networking. So he joined in and used his soccer headshot as a profile picture. However, before he had to enter the rat race, the NFL called with a job offer. In 2013, the Kansas City Chiefs hired Martin as a freelance agent. Since then he has also been a linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New York Jets and the New Orleans Saints.
Over the years, Martin returned to LinkedIn occasionally to socialize and pursue business ventures outside of the field, such as advertising contracts. When the pandemic hit and pushed the break for professional sport, there was suddenly a lot more time to think about life after football. For example, Martin is interested in working with asset managers to help fellow gamers prepare for their next career.
“The goal for me is to build a community and use it as a knowledge resource,” said Martin. “People want to be with athletes. How can I use my platform? “
We are now in a time when jocks want to be more than just athletes. You have platforms and portfolios. They are storytellers and investors. Fans expect players to send small tweets and post photos of their latest fits on Instagram. Recently, however, more athletes have turned to social media to find out what is possible outside of their daily work.
LinkedIn was founded in 2002 as a place where anyone can post digital résumés, connect with professionals, and apply for work. Today athletes can post articles and videos in a curated feed and send direct messages to their connections.
Like all social networks, LinkedIn, which has grown to 700 million members, has struggled to fight racism and censorship on its platform. Given the buttoned nature of the site, comments from internet trolls, salty fans, and drunk uncles are less of a worry when compared to Facebook or Twitter.
“Social media seems to have a negative connotation,” said Tony Gonzalez, who ran out of the Hall of Fame and retired from the NFL in 2013 after 17 seasons. “I found that LinkedIn is a place that is very positive about how people are growing in any industry.”
Gonzalez, an NFL studio analyst at FOX, joined LinkedIn last year to promote its new “Wide Open” podcast. He regularly publishes video clips from the latest episode with guests from Jessica Alba to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“When I first came to LinkedIn, I wanted to share how I became successful,” said Gonzalez. “I can also see what others are doing to be successful so that I can learn from them.”
Success means something very different for modern athletes than it does for those who competed before the internet. Players don’t just want to play ball. They want to own companies and become investors.
They also love a creative job title. A number of players list themselves on LinkedIn as venture capitalists. Some are Entrepreneurs, Others CEOs Former NBA player Baron Davis is a “Master Connector” and an “Occasional DJ”. The renaissance man Shaquille O’Neal was not only a business mogul, but also called himself the “supplier of fun”.
This is a far cry from gamblers in the 60s and 70s who had to take on second jobs in the off-season to make extra income.
Of course, with extra money comes an extra risk. History is full of cautionary stories of professional athletes who have lost everything after being exploited and recklessly spent. In 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that around 60 percent of NBA players went broke within five years of retirement, while four out of five NFL players experienced financial hardship within two years of retirement.
“An NBA career is very short,” said Pau Gasol, the six-time all-star center, which joined LinkedIn last year to highlight its philanthropy and volunteering. “When you are only thirty you can retire and have a whole life ahead of you, but you are not ready to manage many aspects of your life.”
Professional athletes of all ages had to grapple with this reality earlier this year when it was unclear whether their leagues would return due to Covid-19.
In order to prepare for the uncertainty, actors have placed more emphasis on business education and financial support over the past decade. The leagues are now running seminars to help athletes manage their money. In 2017, Harvard Business School launched a program called Crossover Into Business, which brings professional athletes together with two mentors from Harvard MBA students to “develop their business acumen”.
Since face-to-face meetings are not currently recommended, LinkedIn can be a special lifeline.
For Gasol, who left medical school at the University of Barcelona as a teenager to turn pro, this is a way to get involved outside of the court. “I didn’t really get the chance to get the education I probably wanted earlier in my life,” he said. “As I approach another part of my life and move on to different goals and challenges, I think LinkedIn is the perfect network for me.”
And in those dwindling moments of a year when the roar of the crowd fell silent, the pro athletes on the platform are grateful for focusing less on the present and more on what’s next.
“I’m in no way a superstar. That gives medium-sized players like me a chance, ”said Martin. “I think that’s really powerful.”