Mike Tyson earned about $400 million during his boxing career. In 2003, he filed for bankruptcy. Charles Barkley, who earned $40 million as an NBA player, estimated he has lost $10 million on gambling. Andre Rison said he would routinely pass out in a club with $10,000 lying on the floor.
As the sports industry has burgeoned in recent decades, athletes have earned more and more money. It seems as if every year a different player receives the highest-paying contract at his position.
But now, seemingly more than ever before, athletes are losing their money at a staggering rate, and ESPN’s latest “30 for 30,” “Broke,” brought the issue to national attention on Tuesday night.
A popular sentiment among the public questions why we should care. Why should we care that a 2009 Sports Illustrated article said 78 percent of NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress within two years of retirement? Why should we care that the same article estimated 60 percent of NBA players are in a similar situation within five years of retirement?
They mismanage their money. It’s not our problem.
But that sentiment is wrong.
That SI article essentially came and went. It had a profound impact on me at the time, and I’m sure others felt the same way. It told us the shocking — and not so shocking — ways athletes blow through money.
However, its lasting impact was minimal.
“Broke” rehashed the issue, highlighting pressures athletes feel to spend and the financial calamities to which they are susceptible. By nature of airing — and re-airing — on television, it has more potential to raise awareness among athletes, and its impact was immediate on some.
I saw several professional and collegiate players voicing their opinions about the documentary on Twitter. Every tweet had one resounding message: Not me. I won’t go #broke.
But no matter what they — particularly the college kids — say now, it’s much harder to follow through when you’re finally immersed in professional life.
Imagine yourself, a college student, thrust into a million-dollar job. Picture, even, making $490k, last year’s NBA minimum salary. You go from making chump change — if you work at all — to having more money than you can fathom.
It’s not easy to handle.
Plow through your contract year-by-year, and you can forget about living like royalty later in life — athletes are only athletes for so long, and their paychecks cease to arrive from the day they retire. The average NFL career, for example, spans three-and-a-half years.
Would you realistically have the foresight to save enough of your money for the rest of your life?
If you’re emphatically nodding right now, you just don’t understand. These professionals feel like they’re on top of the world. They take business risks, they provide for friends and family and they divorce at an abnormally high rate.
Now you say, “They’re still idiots for losing all their money.” And while “idiot” might not be the most appropriate word, yes, they are not smart with money. But it’s because they are not educated about how to budget it.
They may be in America’s upper class, but as the SI article said, they’re essentially lottery winners — not businessmen or stockbrokers.
A Wall Street CEO goes bankrupt? That’s worth your admonishment. He should know better.
An athlete goes broke? Give at least an ounce of sympathy.
Don’t stop there, though, because no one but you feels your sympathy. Make your voice heard.
Professional sports organizations have methods in place to teach their players about money management, but clearly those techniques are not effective enough. Colleges that routinely churn out pros need to require athletes to take courses in money management, build a foundation early so they’re prepared when they sign their first contract.
“Broke” brought attention to the issue. But it cannot reverse the trend on its own.