I tend to not have a lot of time for ESPN’s non-live sports programming. At this point, I think the bulk of their efforts are going to either pound us into submission towards caring for their own product or making themselves appear as the kingmakers of sport. They may not demand all their programs and on-air personalities talk the same topic to death but that’s the effect. (Just wait until this weekend and how the words “Tim” and “Tebow” will not go unsaid 100,000 times before the New York Jets’ next game). And I’m not the only one who ignores the “Worldwide Leader” and their programming as much as possible. Were it not for the fact they have major deals with the three major American-based leagues as well as with the Premier League, I’d find myself comfortable just ignoring their channels altogether.
The one aberration to this sentiment is the brilliant film series “30 for 30”. The brainchild of noted sports blogger Bill Simmons and executive producer Mike Tollin, this series of documentaries is simply awesome. The idea to give filmmakers carte blanche to tell whatever story they wanted from the “ESPN Era” (i.e. 1979-2009) has produced some great, intriguing, poignant and disturbing films. They have touched on everything from the rise of fantasy sports (“Silly Little Game”) to the corruption in college/university programs (“Pony Express”) to the various infamous moments in sports (“The Announcement,” “June 17th, 1994,” “Catching Hell”). So far, the pinnacle remains “The Two Escobars” which detailed the lives of Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar and how he became a victim of the cultural violence spurred by famed drug lord Pablo Escobar after he scored an own goal during the 1994 World Cup.
The series made its return last night with “Broke,” the story of what happens when young athletes make, spend and lose millions upon millions of dollars in earnings. Now none of the stories they tell are new. But getting former big earners like MLB All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, NFL QB Bernie Kosar, WR Andre Rison and LB Keith McCants helps in driving their points forward.
To cut their long story short, SOME athletes make lots of money when they become professional players and they proceed to live it up like the young men they are – buying fast cars without knowing how to drive stick, purchasing mansions for themselves and their moms, champagne bottle wars in the clubs, rolling 20 deep everywhere, diamonds, gambling with teammates, groupies, etc. End result? When that next paycheck doesn’t arrive, they find themselves deep in debt.
What the documentary does also show is that it’s not just the fast lifestyle that gets athletes but bad investment deals. Curt Schilling spent his fortune in trying to develop a new game software company. Other athletes overextend themselves buying auto dealerships, car washes and other real estate ventures that go belly up. This is what happened to former Saints great Deuce McAllister. Behind every bad investment is a speculator looking for an athlete to fund the latest can’t miss deal of a lifetime. For people with little to no business acumen, the idea of lucrative paydays is appealing – and such deals are tough to turn down when they come from family or friends.
Saddest of all is the sense that a lot of these athletes are used by their families, their friends and their coaches in order to extract as much money as they possibly can from these juvenile golden geese. The tales of Bernie Kosar’s father syphoning off his son’s millions or of Mike Vick’s financial adviser writing himself checks from the QB’s accounts are both shocking and saddening. That these were college graduates who attended major universities (Kosar went to University of Miami while Vick left Virginia Tech University) doesn’t diminish the fact that these were young men with no sense of their financial responsibilities and capabilities or that, unlike most of their peers, they were easy targets for a whole industry.
I think that’s what I took away most from this documentary: that there is a whole industry in every city with a major professional team devoted to parting these young men from their millions. Everyone knows how much a young player is making. No detail of their lives goes unreported. Instead, there’s managers, agents, financial advisors, potential partners, club managers, groupies, posse members, jewelry merchants, real estate merchants, exotic car merchants, etc. all devoted to fixing them with the trappings of wealth and success. For young men who think that they’ll never get injured and that the good times will continue forever, it becomes a losing game of spending more than you’re making – money being the one thing that is always easiest to lose than it is to gain.
But if you’re thinking “Why should I care about overpaid meatheads playing a kid’s game for millions? They won the lotto after all!” consider that they didn’t win the lottery. They busted their asses and often sacrificed much of their childhood and youth to become what they are. No one is trying to tackle a lottery winner. Or put a 95-mph baseball in their back. Furthermore, once the game is done with them – and it will be – there’s decades of time for them to experience the after effects. Knee pain because there’s no more cartilage between the bones. Back pain whenever they try to bend down. Everything from neurological to psychological pain is what is waiting for them beyond the retirement line and, if they were smart, they’ll have some money squirreled away to take care of them. If not, they will just join the large statistical number of athletes “self-medicating” or in trouble with the law. After all, who’s hiring an ex-jock with no college degree or other professional skills, a bad back and early onset Alzheimer’s?
The number of athletes who will retire into the lap of luxury once their career is done is slim because their careers are slim. To us, the fans, they are disposable – names on a jersey or digital figures in a TV screen. The salary figures they make are, to us, the same as Monopoly money. If you’re a fan, you’ve plugged in salaries into trade checking programs or played a game that lets you bid millions more for a player than other teams. A million here. Two million there. Who cares? It’s not our money. “Broke” shows you that, in the long run, it’s Monopoly money for the athletes as well – except when it’s run out. Then it’s a tale of woe.