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Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Will We Ever See Another Two-Sport Athlete?

Illustration for article titled Will We Ever See Another Two-Sport Athlete?

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was a college infielder, and was drafted by the Rockies in 2010. After being acquired in the Rule 5 draft by Texas, he showed up at Rangers spring training to take some drills, and said, "I've always had the dream of playing two sports." Well, the quintessential two-sport athlete says Wilson should go ahead and forget that dream.

Bo Jackson, at White Sox camp, was asked specifically about Wilson, but he noted he tells the students at his own academy the same thing, so I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Bo doesn't believe there will ever be another two-sport athlete who had as much success as he did.

"Stick to what got (Wilson) in the headlines, not baseball," Jackson said. "Twenty-five or 30 years ago when I did it, I'm not trying to say anything negative about other athletes, but the talent pool wasn't that deep. In this day in age, with all the high-tech training, computer-engineered workouts and the proper food and diet, if you try to concentrate on two sports, I guarantee you're going to ride the bench in both because the talent is that deep. Stick to whatever sport you're comfortable with and let everything else go."


I think that's pretty spot-on. The way athletes are expected to approach their jobs, especially in football, has changed so much since Jackson's day, even in the 13 years since Deion Sanders was last playing two sports. Training is a full-time, year-round thing, and the level of talent is so much higher, that it's tough to stand out at any position without dedicating most of your offseason to that specific role.

But forget even the athlete's ability. I can't envision a sports team in 2014 being okay with one of its employees risking his health and his stamina at a second job. Salaries have skyrocketed in the past couple of decades—athletes are serious investments, and pro sports are big business. Just look to how many teams try (sometimes successfully) to void contracts of players who hurt themselves playing pick-up basketball.

You might say it's easy enough to stick language into a contract voiding it in the case of an injury suffered in another sport, but it's not always that simple. Bo Jackson was the picture of health until he dislocated his hip playing football in January 1991. After surgery, doctors diagnosed him with avascular necrosis—a still-mysterious condition affecting blood flow that can be caused by trauma, or by underlying medical conditions.

Did Jackson's condition lead to his injury, or the other way around? It's not clear. Did that maybe-football injury end his baseball career? Jackson's power and speed disappeared, but he did play parts of three more seasons with the White Sox. These are questions contract language may not be able to foresee, and for most sports owners, that potential isn't worth the trouble.


Things were already awkward on the contract front when Jackson was drafted by the Raiders. He didn't expect to play football professionally, but Al Davis personally liked the idea of having at two-sport athlete from a marketing perspective. His contract specifically put his baseball career first, allowing him to skip training camp and the first few weeks of the season—he didn't have to report to Oakland until the Royals' season was done. And, crucially, Davis paid Jackson like an elite, full-time running back. In today's cap-crucial NFL, good luck finding an owner willing to do that.

By the time Deion Sanders's Redskins deal was signed, the contract provisions had changed. Whereas Jackson was free to pursue baseball for the length of the season, Sanders's specifically said he had to be playing Major League Baseball. But at the beginning of the 2001 football season, Sanders was in triple-A, trying to work his way to the Blue Jays. The Redskins said minor league ball isn't MLB, and threatened to void Sanders's contract if he didn't report to camp. He complied.


So, I think Jackson's right when he says that Wilson's future is on the gridiron, and the days of NFL/MLB crossover stars are over. Which is a damn shame, because two-sport players were pretty much the pinnacle of athletic ability, and possibly the coolest men alive. But sports have become too important for anyone to play two of them.

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