For those of you who may have watched the powerful ESPN 30 for 30 documentary titled Broke, you were given a unique, in-depth glimpse into the world of an athlete and his financial habits. For those who have yet to see this film, I highly suggest you take the time to watch it—especially if you find the subject of this article interesting.
The life of a professional athlete isn’t without the burden of both accurate and inaccurate perceptions, specifically in realm of finance.
Most “jocks” are assumed to be financially illiterate, flashy and frivolous cavemen who frequently “make it rain” in strip clubs with $100 bills while spreading their seed across the country with reckless abandon.
This description is rarely an accurate one for most guys in the NFL.
The only description that matters to those who are intent on taking advantage of an opportunity is "highly paid professional athlete." This alone will designate you as a prime target for anyone looking for a handout.
As the documentary describes, there are a lot of different ways athletes can and are separated from their money. Unfortunately, common sources of this leeching often come from the people whom you trust the most. The same people you surround yourself with hoping for love, support and guidance can also be the ones who hit you the hardest.
One of the things I realized quickly hanging around NFL locker rooms is that the more money you have, the more expensive things tend to be.
I remember the designer suit companies that would somehow buy their way into our locker rooms and hotels. It was quite obvious what the main selling point was for these companies and it sure wasn’t the suits. The sales team was always comprised of two or three model-type women fully equipped with a pearly-white smile and a sparkle in their eye.
I found it somewhat amusing how effective such a blatant ploy to extract money from others was on a daily basis.
These women were essentially strippers in business attire, their ultimate goal to take a guy's money with the same charm and seduction found when eating terrible, over-priced chicken wings while a nude girl dances in front of you.
Sure, they were selling a product, but there was really no justification for the prices. Yet day after day, I watched grown men sucked into a vortex of extravagance, peddled by success and beauty incarnate, all while the organizations themselves enable this predatory capitalism to take place in-house.
I suppose these are grown men who are expected to be responsible for their own actions and hard-earned pay.
Throughout an NFL locker room there’s tons of unique magazines lying around designed to cater to the filthy-rich. Magazines like Elite Traveler or the Robb Report. Admittedly, I loved looking through these magazines because the lifestyle they’re selling inside requires a level of wealth so far beyond my comprehension that it was interesting to realize how relative wealth can be.
These magazines had the ability to make multi-million dollar athletes feel poor by comparison. Flipping the pages you’d see nothing but 50-thousand-dollar watches, executive jets, multi-million dollar properties for sale, as well as exclusive vacation destinations.
The point here is to illustrate the unattainable bar being set throughout the sub-culture of professional athletes, a standard guys feel compelled to live up to, which in turn compounds the vulnerability often exploited in athletes.
For guys in the NFL who enjoyed an active night life, a common practice I’d hear repeated would be creating an alias for the night as a way to avoid falling victim to women who may take advantage of a them; an issue all too familiar in this environment.
It was fascinating how many pregnant girlfriends and soon-to-be-wives would inhabit the family sections of a stadium. It rarely seemed to take long before a guy’s brand new girlfriend would suddenly end up pregnant. There’s either a strong correlation between viable sperm counts of NFL players or there’s clearly another variable at play here.
There really is no way to completely prepare a person in their early 20s for a life where they’re suddenly elevated to a pay scale far exceeding anyone they grew up with. With the blink of an eye, you’re faced with a series of new decisions to make about what to do with your money and how to navigate the world of family and friends in light of this new and unique position.
It would be inaccurate to generalize this particular facet athletes encounter as malicious or ill-willed because each relationship is unique. I can tell you the dynamics of those relationships will, in fact, be significantly altered in some form or another and, at some point, it will need to work itself out.
Not every professional athlete is bad at managing money.
I personally know of several guys who have been very smart with their money and understand how to live well within their means. However, none of that takes away from the difficulty involved in keeping the vultures at bay while making wise decisions with their money.
When people see wealth in the hands of those who don’t appear capable of handling it, that person quickly finds they’re surrounded by predators from all walks of life looking to take a piece, just like a pack of wolves on the hunt seeking out the vulnerable members of a herd.
Although I didn’t make a lot of money during my brief time in the NFL, my strategy was always to continue living a life as if I were making an average salary. I purposely gave off the perception that I was a man without any significant wealth.
This, in reality, was more or less the truth.
In order to accomplish this, I was forced to endure a constant battle of peer pressure, as well as being teased by fellow teammates for my poor taste in clothes, a beaten up Jeep Wrangler, and my $20 haircuts.
Ironically, my caution to spend money was overridden by the opportunity to accumulate property at the height of a real estate bubble ready to burst—a bubble I clearly underestimated.
This was my biggest financial loss as a pro athlete who tried to play it smart and be frugal. Although I managed to fend off the vultures and temptations many athletes succumb to, it was my inability to foresee the biggest real estate crisis in the history of this country that ultimately would get the better of me financially.
Despite this unfortunate personal experience, I‘m relatively lucky considering I managed to minimize my losses. The biggest hit I took throughout this endeavor was to my credit score, which at one time was immaculate.
Perhaps the lesson in all this is you may be able to protect your money by keeping it out of the hands of scam artists and vultures who prey on professional athletes, but how do you protect that money from yourself in the face of what was to become one of the worst recessions in this country's history?