This week, in their “30 For 30” special, “Broke,” ESPN expounded on the Sports Illustrated article alerting the nation to the systemic financial problems within the community of elite professional athletes. Among other frightening observations, Sports Illustrated found (and ESPN corroborated) that “By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress” and “60% of former NBA players have gone broke within five years of retirement.”
The hypothesized causes of these frightening statistics are compelling:
- Stratospheric salaries create the mistaken impression that the money could never be outlived. When most pro sports originated, the players didn’t even make enough money to quit their day jobs. And while pro football, basketball, baseball and hockey players have been making a fine living for a few decades now, the economic boom of the 90s and the corresponding leap in team valuations for owners has led to unimaginable salaries for the top players.
- But keeping up with the Joneses is an even more gripping problem in the uber-competitive world of pro sports than it is at the country club. Not everybody is making A-rod’s $32 mil in 2011, but everyone wants to look, eat and drive like they are. As Jamal Mashburn observed, “The show wasn’t as much on the court as it was in the parking lot.” Yes, the disease of more is alive and well in pro sports.
- And unfortunately, even though many of these guys are becoming instant millionaires upon getting signed, they don’t know any more about the complexities of personal finance than any other kid in their late teens or upper 20s. They may even carry less financial wisdom into their careers, as many young pro athletes hail from broken homes in disadvantaged communities.
- Because so many athletes have risen out of poverty to their new fame and fortune, this also makes them a target within their communities. Bart Scott of the New York Jets (but who spent his better years in black and purple) calls it winning the “Ghetto Lottery.” At its peak, Andre Rison had an entourage of over 40 and Bernie Kosar had over 50 families relying on him financially. 50!
- But it’s not just known friends and family that hound these instant millionaires—it’s also young ladies with an eye for upward mobility. One restaurant owner in the nation’s capital confessed that she had 7,000 women who would receive an automatic text message every time Michael Jordan walked into the joint during his stretch as a Wizard. Typically, over 2,000 women would heed the call. Of course, these rich, young “ballers” aren’t exactly turning the ladies away either. Travis Henry boasts nine kids, with nine different moms and $17,000 per month in child support.
- And for those players who do settle into marriage, striking numbers of them have their assets cut in half shortly after retirement; fully 60% of NFL players find themselves divorced within three years after leaving the game. This often doubles their expenses and halves their assets without diminishing their lifestyle.
- Those athletes who do seek financial advice often find it through unscrupulous and opportunistic advisors, accountants, lawyers and agents who insist on taking a cut of everything. They are often over-exposed in private equity, real estate and alternative investments—including hair-brained business “opportunities” with a 90% failure rate. These competitive ball field warriors are especially prone to sales pitches with more allure than a bank CD or balanced portfolio.
- All this happens typically before these men reach the age of 30. Five years of income needs to last 50 years.
The temptation is to watch “Broke” or read about this and come to one of two conclusions:
- These poor athletes! They’re used and abused to line the pockets of wealthy owners, only to be left with broken bodies and bank accounts.
- These stupid athletes! They’re handed the world on a silver platter and all they do is wreak a path of destruction with their lives and let down the fans and families who support them.
Yes, it was stupid of Evander Holyfield to build a 52,000 square foot house with not one, but two, bowling alleys, not knowing whether he’d ever win another fight. It is nearly unfathomable how John Daly gambled away $50 million and how Mike Tyson blew through $400 million. And yes, it is heartbreaking to hear of Keith McCants’s story of being arrested penniless with two prostitutes, high on drugs that were first recommended by doctors to keep him in the game. Leagues and owners are complicit, but so are universities cashing in on prime-time athletes and sending them away without any personal financial education whatsoever.
The temptation is to think that we’re bystanders or third-party participants, that we’re inherently different. But we’re not. What we see in the financial mismanagement of athletes is merely a magnification of the worst that lies in all of us regarding money. I, for one, can certify that if I had that kind of money in my late-teens and early-twenties, I’d likely have done the same damn thing. And I didn’t grow up without the benefit of loving parents and wise instruction. Go ahead, think about the dumbest thing you’ve ever done; and then think about having a seemingly unlimited amount of money with which to do it AND the paparazzi drooling, waiting for you to screw up.
Money is a tool that can be used to great effect to magnify the impact of our foolishness, and also our wisdom and discernment. But when money becomes an adornment, when richness becomes a personality trait, and when wealth becomes an advertisement or proposition, we very well may end up agreeing with McCants’s final conclusion: “’The love of money is the root of all evil.’ It destroyed everything around me.”
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