If ever there were a San Diego Charger whose postcareer success has matched his years spent on the field, it’s the great Ron Mix. Mix’s glory years came in the 1960s, when the Chargers were in the American Football League. Back in the day, Mix was listed at 6’ 4” and 250 pounds, known as a weight lifter long before football players commonly pumped iron, and nicknamed the “Intellectual Assassin.” On the field, he achieved something that’s never been equaled: in ten seasons, he had two holding calls against him. Off the field, he blazed a trail by becoming one of the few players to earn a law degree — he graduated from the University of San Diego law school in 1969 — and one of the very few who got the degree during his career, not after he hung up his cleats.
Today, at 71, Mix still practices — law, that is, not football. From new offices in Mission Valley, Mix displays only one football memento: high up on a bookcase is his white helmet, emblazoned with the yellow bolt and his number, 74, on the side. It’s safe inside a plastic box, not only heralding an illustrious career, which got him elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, but also reminding us that there is life after sport.
Mix says that too many athletes today have “dismal postcareer lives.” There’s a touch of anger if not frustration in his voice. He calls their troubles “startling, sad, pathetic, and outrageous.” He’s speaking of the rise in bankruptcies, marital infidelities, and divorces, as well as legal and personal screwups, the sordidness exposed by our gotcha media. The names in the circus of ex-football clowns are legend: Lawrence Taylor, Ryan Leaf, O.J. Simpson.
How much has changed since his playing days? Nothing and everything. In the 1960s, Mix tells me, athletes prepared for life after football. Unlike today’s players, they worked in the off-season, usually “part-time for a company and setting the foundation to build a career. Or they attended school.” It was, he says, “commonly accepted” that you’d be moving on. Back then, the money was good, “more than the average person made. But we probably spent more too.” After retirement, Mix says, even those who’d saved their money had only enough to live on for a year. Eventually, everyone needed a job.
Among the Chargers he played with, several got law degrees, one became a dentist, others earned degrees in business and education. Perhaps his most famous teammate was Jack Kemp, who died earlier this year and who had a short-lived career with San Diego. Kemp demonstrated an ability to mediate conflicts, helping, along with Mix and others, to establish a players’ association. Within a year of leaving the Buffalo Bills, he was swooped up by New York’s Republican Party, put on the ballot, and elected to Congress.
But then again, the culture of football hasn’t changed much; its problems are perennial. The socioeconomic profile of players, Mix notes, remains the same. Mostly low-income kids, raised by single mothers, with few differences between blacks and whites. Mix grew up in the Russian-Jewish ghetto of Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. His parents divorced early, and his mother raised the children. “Most of our time was spent on welfare.” Coming from poverty, he says, no one had “business sophistication in my family or in my circle of friends.” Another constant among players: young fatherless men value male role models, especially “coaches. So they grow up to trust adult supervisors.” They learn from these men that “sportsmanship — integrity and fair play — is at the root of the game.” But “the athlete becomes too trusting; he thinks people can be trusted. But that’s not the way of the business world. So he’s susceptible to being fooled and cheated.” Players are an “easy touch” for family and friends, Mix says, because the player is sympathetic to those who are stuck behind in the poor neighborhood.
What’s more, then as now, “Athletes don’t receive a good education in college.” And it’s not because they’re being denied one. Rather, Mix says, “Playing a major sport at a major university is more difficult than if the athlete is working a full-time job and going to school. They take up so much of your time: practice, meetings, games, travel. And injury treatment. If you’re a football player, you semi-live in that training room, before and after practice. Weekends for study? No, there’s a game to be played. What about Sunday? No, there’s injury treatment.”
Without an education, athletes, he says, have no “skills to offer an employer once they retire.” Even if they got their degree, after a pro career they’ve forgotten what they learned, and they’re at a disadvantage, starting out in a field where most of their competition is five to ten years younger.
When Mix retired from football, he practiced civil litigation. Six years ago, a friend, a former National Basketball Association player, told him that he’d been at a conference of retired NBA players and noticed most were limping. His friend asked the wounded warriors why they hadn’t filed workers’ compensation claims. “That was a foreign word to them,” his friend said.
The following year Mix was invited to speak. Recalling the confab now in a slow-measured cadence, the epitome of “don’t get excited,” Mix remembers telling the men that every team buys workers’ compensation insurance. Ex-players who have ongoing injuries can file claims against the team and its insurance carrier. “Nobody gets rich, but it can be significant money. Second-chance money.” An injured ex-pro may receive a tax-free award for permanent disability; a lifetime pension if he is 70 percent or more disabled, roughly $5000 to $10,000 a year; or lifetime medical care focused on the particular hurt. Mix signed up 100 players and came away from that convention “with a law practice,” “a nice little niche.” Since then, he has won every case he’s filed.