“I think a lot of guys have problems saying no.” -Jamal Mashburn in Broke
A few years ago, I traveled across the United States to meet up with a few friends for New Years in Portland. We had plenty of catching up and celebrating to do, but first things first, we made our way through several 30 for 30s together, captivated by topics like Allen Iverson’s run-in with the law in high school, Michael Jordan’s baseball career, and the fallout of Steve Bartman, now forever a part of the Chicago Cubs’ “curse” aura.
Needless to say, I, too, am excited about the soon-to-be released 30 for 30s, and I have taken a sneak peak at Broke, directed by Billy Corben, and slotted to be revealed on November 7 in this next cycle. One of the appeals of 30 for 30 is that the topics seem not so much random but actually important for public audiences, a significant contribution to public discourse. They have something to say not just about athletes, but about ourselves. Broke is no exception.
We live in a society that is constantly in search of more, of bigger and better. Better jobs, bigger houses, more money. That’s where life is really found, isn’t it? And what could possibly be better than a world in which playing a game becomes one’s job, adoring fans an every-day reality, and pay checks with lots of zeroes.
But Broke–which includes interview appearances from the likes of Bernie Kosar, Jamarcus Russell, Curt Schilling, Jamal Mashburn, and Tracy McGrady–explores the financial plight of so many professional athletes, suggesting that their lives aren’t the perfection we think they are and that even stars aren’t immune from our cultural deceptions. The film starts with these chilling words from a 2009 Sports Illustrated article: “By the time they have retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.” Apparently–and this really shouldn’t be that big of a surprise to us–our former professional athletes are often no better with their money than many of our families, corporations, or governments.
The problem, as Reggie Wilkes points out in the film, is that “Like most college students, athletes come out of college financially illiterate.” This is not to say that all the financial decisions players make are ill-intentioned. As Broke points out, many athletes, particularly ones that come from poorer backgrounds, immediately buy one or both of their parents a house and/or vehicles as soon they get drafted and sign that first big contract.
Some of their other financial choices could also be considered charitable, but in a much less admirable way. Several athletes described their habit of “making it rain” in clubs, which journalist Dan Charnas calls “hip hop’s way of translating that absurdly American notion of throwing money away.” Some contemporary athletes approach this throwing money away with the same competitiveness that they pursue championships.
For others, the problem was gambling. In one clip, Charles Barkley estimates that he has lost about ten million dollars gambling. Still others were careless with investments, credit, or even failing to expect the government to take huge amounts of their earnings. Many saw their bank accounts deplete by birthing children or marrying and then divorcing. And then there are all the injuries that add up and the medical bills to boot.
“Let me tell you about your finances. All you need is one of everything. One! One car. Wanna get a house? One house. One piece of jewelry.” – Herm Edwards in Broke
So what are the takeaways? There are many possibilities here, but for me it comes down to two words: competence and limits. Both have always mattered, still do matter, and always will. There are no replacements for either one. There are plenty of opportunists out there looking to exploit, but who we say our “yes” and “no” to will have consequences for the rest of life. There is no mythical amount of money that will somehow make life easy. We have no other world in which to live but the one that is already there. It will not bend to the way we want it to be, so perhaps we ought to bend to the way it is. Yes, even professional athletes.
Broke premieres on ESPN America (HD) on Wednesday 7th November at 7pm