ESPN's 'Broke' Barely Scratched the Surface of Athlete Bankruptcy Discussion

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ESPN's 'Broke' Barely Scratched the Surface of Athlete Bankruptcy Discussion
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

If ESPN's latest "30 for 30" documentary, Broke, was supposed to change anything about the way people view bankruptcy among athletes, it fell terribly short.

This is nothing against ESPN for wanting to highlight the issues. Billy Corben does amazing work, and Tuesday night was certainly a feather in his cap. Many of the highlighted stories had not previously seen the publicity they got as part of this documentary. To some extent, exposing the width and breadth of the problem might help create change in the future.

The argument could be made, however, that Broke just highlighted the narrative that has already been told a thousand times over the past decade.

Many athletes go broke.

It doesn't matter how much money they've made; it doesn't matter how they lost it. The numbers are staggering. According to a 2009 estimate from Sports Illustrated, "78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce."

That's 2009. While Broke told many individual stories (from football and elsewhere) about the symptoms, the disease is not new, nor have people been completely ignorant about it. Every fan of any NFL team probably knows at least one cautionary tale of one of their favorites going bankrupt. Broke was just the telethon that forced everyone to think about the problem at once.

So, kudos to ESPN and Mr. Corben for their work, but what exactly did it change?

My biggest issue with the narrative around athlete bankruptcies (especially among NFL players) is that it's incomplete. While athletes certainly make bad decisions with their money, consistently telling and retelling the stories of their missteps is as disingenuous as it is preventive. 

Even worse, perhaps, is the reaction to these bankruptcy stories. Fans and media reaction varies, but a small subset of both groups invariably treat these athletes (all athletes, really) as animals in a cage suitable only for our enjoyment. The fact that these are people never really occurs to this group.

In this regard, the retelling of these stories only inflames those preconceived notions. That doesn't mean Broke's impact is a net negative, just that people's opinions probably aren't going to be radically changed after hearing these stories again.

To a large extent, NFL players know (at least, they should know) the stories that Broke highlighted. The NFL and NFLPA both do extensive financial training for rookies, veterans and retired players alike. The programs are not new, but they are expanding rapidly in recent years as the group of former NFL athletes grows and grows to match the NFL's popularity boom decades ago.

Just over a year ago, I wrote about Priority Sports and their NFL representation team. Priority is one of the largest agencies out there, but they get little publicity for what they do for clients—by design. Unlike other agents out there (some, not all), Priority relishes staying out of the spotlight.

When has anyone ever seen a guy like Drew Rosenhaus on SportsCenter unless he or his clients did something stupid? Never? Exactly.

Priority hand-picks clients who are prepared to maximize their second or third NFL contract. It's a long-term investment that doesn't pay immediate dividends, but it has helped Priority rise to their current status. Treating people right pays off in the long run.

Priority Sports is not the only agency that thinks about their clients long-term. During Broke last night, Twitter was on fire with sports agents telling stories of how they had nipped some of these problems in the bud. My favorite was from Howard Shatsky of Pro Football Management:

Of course, agents aren't the only point of contact between an athlete and his money. Financial advisers are more prevalent in the NFL than most people know.

Every year at events like the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, NFL scouts and media are nearly outnumbered by the amount of guys in suits credentialed through agencies like Merrill Lynch and J.P. Morgan. Those financial guys are scouting, too, and angling to maximize their earnings, though not always necessarily those of their clients.

Of course, painting agents or financial advisers with broad strokes is just as disingenuous as doing so with athletes.

That, if anything, underscores the many layers that Broke missed.

What about the athletes—especially in the NFL—who make all the right financial decisions, but went broke after insurance companies refused to insure them because their knee, neck or brain ailments are preexisting conditions?

What about the athletes whose generosity—foolish or not—leads to their financial demise? If a guy goes broke because he couldn't say no to helping out his friends, family and others dig out of debt, is that really something to deride? It isn't the path to financial security, but it's a better road than a millionaire who dies without friends.

Broke started a dialogue, but if the narrative around bankrupt athletes is going to change, people like you and I need to continue down the roads Broke did not. The issue is bigger than the documentary had time to delve into. The problems are more myriad than many realize.

So, as good as it was, Broke did little to change the discussion after barely scratching the surface. Everyone should certainly watch the documentary; it was well done and highlights the issue in a format that hadn't been done before. But progress will only be made if the discussion continues.

 

Schottey

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."

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