Jocks on the bread line

Friday, December 28, 2012

Anyone who has read the Sports Illustrated expose or watched the ESPN show "Broke" probably has mixed feelings about the glut of sob stories about multi-million-dollar jocks going bankrupt.

On one hand, athletes make fortunes for often greedy owners, putting their own bodies on the line, and why shouldn't they take all the money they can while they can?

On the other, in the grand scheme of things, what does a sports performer really contribute to society to justify such obscene amounts of money?

In a time when so many families struggle every day just to keep a place to live and put food on the table, it's hard to believe that too many people sit and sob into their Raman noodles over a sports performer who has blown through millions and millions of dollars through bad decisions and high living.

Bought one too many Bentleys, put your names on one too many nightclubs, dated one too many gold-diggers, gone to jail one too many times, boo hoo, cry us a river.

Sports contracts have gotten so out of hand that it's hard to even wrap your head around the numbers. Does an Alex Rodriguez really need the $275 million he is guaranteed in his latest contract? Is it even possible to spend that much? Does Michael Vick deserve $812,500 in salary alone PER GAME to mostly sit the bench these days? Can one justify "Money" Mayweather being rewarded to the tune of $85 million this year for two fights and less than one hour in a ring in the past 12 months while ducking his most obvious competitor?

(For comparison sake, it you take home $20,000 a year, it would take you 50 years of hard work to have earned a single million bones.)

When salaries for sports - not even for the best players - commonly begin to exceed a Powerball jackpot, things may be getting a bit unrealistic. These people don't broker world peace, cure cancer or invent ways to reverse global warming - they run with a football or dribble a basketball or putt a golf ball.

I tried to count how many athletes have now joined the "$100 million club" with their current contracts, but gave up as I approached 60. Many of them got these contracts after their prime, or have never lived up to expectations, but get paid the same nonetheless. Don't get your job done in the real world, or get replaced by somebody more efficient?... see if your boss continues to happily shell out huge checks to you.

This statistic amazes me - 78% of NFL players go bankrupt or nearly broke just two years into retirement, according to Sports Illustrated. Among NBA veterans, 60% fall into the same predicament within five years.

Some fall victim to unscrupulous agents and managers. According to ex-NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar, he was supporting 50 families at one point and his own father skimmed money from Bernie's pay through his career. Others are bled dry by shiftless shirttail relatives and their old high school crew expecting constant handouts.

While we hear about the big-name-star bankruptcies like Vick's, it is also true that the average NFL career lasts only four years. A player may be left to find his way in life with costly lasting injuries, and may discover that the coddled "education" they were given as star athletes does not prepare them for any meaningful career outside of sports. In many, many cases, athletes fall victim to bad investment advise and business deals, looking for a quick score later in their careers to keep the high-spending lifestyle going.

And some, you just plain can't feel bad for. Chris McAlister, a three-time NFL Pro Bowl choice with the Ravens, says he can't support himself, just one year after retiring from the league. He made a reported fortune of nearly $63 million, partying hard and spending lavishly, and now has to live with his parents and plead for the court to reduce his monthly child support payments.

NBA star Sean Kemp nearly racked up a double-double, impregnating a rumored nine different women with 11 children. Another player has nine kids with nine women and pays more in child support than anyone reading this makes. I feel sorry for the women, but not all of them. Apparently bedding sports stars is a cottage industry for some upwardly-ambitious gals as well. A restaurant owner in Washington recently confessed to keeping a list of 7,000 women who would pay to receive an automatic text message every time Michael Jordan walked into the joint when he was with the Wizards.

Curt Schilling, former Boston Red Sox pitcher, filed for bankruptcy protection despite earning over $100 million. He recalls laying on a hotel bed early in his career with his $20 bills piled all around him on the bed like some scene from a goofy bank robbery movie.

Evander Holyfield had to build a mansion with not one, but two, bowling alleys. John Daly gambled away $50 million. Mike Tyson blew $400 million in ways it is probably best not to try to imagine. Keith McCants was arrested penniless with two prostitutes (a very good way to get penniless), high on drugs that were first recommended by doctors to keep him playing.

Athletes are taught to believe they will always succeed, they will hit home runs and throw touchdowns forever, they will always be stars and high rollers and that the problems of regular people do not exist in their world. They need to feel invinsible.

Why make such a big media deal of pampered jocks going bust? The more I thought about it, the more it may be an important cautionary tale for young people to see.

They see the commercials, and the fancy suits the athletes wear walking into the stadium and they hear about the expensive cribs and rides and diamond jewelry. Maybe they need to see the other side of this.

Even the people they idolize are not above mistakes. There is a message of personal, fiscal responsibility that not only professional athletes, but young people, should hear. The disease of "more" is an alive in suburban Iowa neighborhood of 28-year-olds as in the gated mansion communities of the multi-millionaire athletes in Malibu.

I can guarantee you, if somebody handed me millions of dollars when I was in my late teens or early 20s, I would have found something stupid to do with it. Think back to the dumbest thing you ever did when you were young, then multiple the $5 an hour minimum wage you might have had to do it on by 20 million or so more opportunities to be an idiot. Throw in an entourage of even more daft hangers on encouraging your every dumb move, paparazzi trailing you just waiting for any screw up they can blow up into a front page story, every club just waiting to get you in to help you find trouble, every drug and steroid dealer trying to get you on speed dial, and every fast-talking creep promising you the moon if you'll just invest your big paycheck into their can't miss scheme.

For all of us, there are times when we may have more than we need, and times when we will struggle. We all will have temptations to cut corners. We all find it difficult to say no.

Whether a young person makes a million dollars a week or $250, the potential risks and rewards are more the same than anyone would imagine.

It is still important to save a little of what you get every check for a rainy day. To realize that tunneling out of a credit pit is harder than jumping in.

To remember that things that sound too good to be true, are. To not bother wanting what you can't afford to buy. That there's not much good that can happen to you hanging out in nightclubs, that meaningless sex is a shallow form of recreation, that friends you have to pay for friendship were never friends at all, and that drugs don't really make your problems go away.

Money doesn't buy you wisdom, and it certainly can't purchase greatness or character. It can be a tool for great generosities, or great foolishness. It can easily blind us, and even come to define us. Who we are is not what we drive, or wear, or eat and drink. For those who never realize this, they can never, ever have enough. For those who do, they will find an opportunity for happiness in whatever they may have.

More pay certainly isn't the answer for these unfathomable jock pitfalls we are hearing so much about. Perhaps we should teach our young people as much of responsibility as we do athletics.