Burning Questions: what to do about the culture of excess in professional sports

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It’s a familiar story, but the numbers are no less mindboggling. Approximately 60% of NBA players are broke within five years after retirement, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, and that number is astonishingly higher among NFL players.

Just last week, multiple news outlets reported that former number one draft pick Rob Swift was facing foreclosure and forcible eviction from his multimillion-dollar Seattle-area home. Swift was drafted by Seattle in 2006 and played briefly for the zombie-Sonics/Thunder before seeing his career derailed by substance abuse and psychological problems, and reports included startling images of the type of squalor Swift had been living in: mountains of beer cans, piles of takeout boxes, a virtual minefield of dog feces, and perhaps most disturbing, hundreds of errant bullet holes and empty shell casings.

Swift’s story underscores a painful truth about professional sports, one that is echoed by many of the talking heads featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke: for myriad reasons, the average NBA career is only about three seasons. This might seem at odds with the list of active players currently pushing 40, players like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Derek Fisher, Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, and so on, all of whom have logged 15+ seasons in the NBA.

But this type of longevity is the exception rather than the rule. Kobe Bryant, who is in his 17th season in the NBA, is seemingly indestructible, but his type of physical resilience borders on the superhuman.

Basic math should also tell us that there are exponentially more players vying for roster spots than are available, which creates a great deal of turnover among mid-level players.

Even though the entrance to the league is a revolving door, it’s common for an average athlete to acquire a tremendous amount of wealth, however brief the tenure of their career, but it also bears mentioning that most players don’t earn as much as we might imagine. In fact, the NBA has its own version of the 99% consisting of just the types of players that are safeguarded under the new collective bargaining agreement. Players with something resembling a 5-year, $50 million salary are the 1 percenters, and the remainder of the league earns less than a fraction of what players like Kobe Bryant make.

But even marginal NBA players earn significantly more than the average middleclass American (which is less than $40,000 per year), so why is it that so many professional athletes manage to fritter away their considerable fortunes? As it turns out, it’s much more than a rhetorical question.

To the average person, it seems incomprehensible that someone could squander such an extraordinary blessing, and we like to imagine with no small sense of smug self-righteousness that, given the same opportunity, we would make all the right choices to ensure our long-term financial security. But we like to forget that relative to any number of third world countries, the American middle class is positively Romanesque in terms of lifestyle. The truth is that the vast majority of Americans (i.e. the 99 percent) spend what they make, i.e. live paycheck to paycheck, or perhaps more accurately, overspend and in the process accumulate a tremendous amount of personal debt.

Broke makes the argument that professional athletes are no different from the average American in this regard. As we learned from former NBA star and current analyst Jalen Rose, athletes receive regular bimonthly paychecks just like the rest of us, rather than one comically-oversized Publisher’s Clearing House check.

Broke is objectively more concerned with how athletes lose their money as opposed to why, and there is a catalog of behaviors commonly exhibited among athletes that contribute to their economic downfalls. Not surprisingly, what it basically boils down to is a Caligula-like orgy of excess. Many athletes spend their money like they’re Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions, and Broke offers an illuminating breakdown of all the mitigating factors involved:

1. Culture of Competitiveness – whether it’s gambling, nightclubs, cars, houses, or jewelry, athletes tend to be just as competitive in their spending habits, and the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” gets tossed around a lot in Broke.

2. Lack of or nonexistent knowledge of finances and economics – often a result of socioeconomic background, many young players are ill-equipped to manage personal finances, and tax evasion, or rather an unawareness of how the income and property tax system works, is another major pitfall.

3. Vulturistic/Predatory Sports Agents – this tends to overlap with a lack of financial education. Sports agents are every bit as sleazy as they are portrayed in popular media and regularly engage in the types of fraudulent and unethical practices that are designed for personal economic benefit, often at the expense of the players who they represent.

4. The Entourage – made up of family and friends and general hangers-on, a player’s entourage is one of the biggest drains on their finances, and players often make poor investment choices at the behest of those around them who would take advantage of their generosity for personal gain.

5. Women – it’s not uncommon for an athlete to have fathered numerous children by a variety of women, and mammoth divorce settlements and ensuing child support payments are the bane of many athletes’ existence.

What is hereby designated as reason #6 – substance abuse and mental illness – is an aspect regrettably glossed over in this particular documentary, but to their credit, is one that ESPN has documented in other 30 for 30 films. Butowsky made brief reference to his painkiller addiction that he claims happened as a consequence of multiple injuries, and if professional sports are a microcosm for society, one has to assume that substance abuse and mental illness are just as pervasive among athletes as the general population. Rob Swift is just the most recent example.

A few years ago, Bleacher Report published a list of the top 10 NBA players whose careers were ruined by drugs and alcohol (including performance enhancing drugs). Perhaps the most tragic story is that of Len Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose just weeks after being selected with second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft.

Then there’s Chris Herren, who played briefly in the NBA before his career was ruined by an addiction to both prescription drugs and illicit narcotics. Both Herren and Bias are the subjects of their own ESPN 30 for 30 films, so their stories are well-documented. There are also more obscure players like Eddie Griffin, whose struggles with alcoholism predated his NBA career, and who committed suicide in 2007 by crashing his SUV into a moving train.

But for every pitiable story, there is a less sympathetic one. Isiah Rider, a member of the notorious Jail-Blazers squad, engaged in ongoing behavior that eventually led to his personal and financial ruin, whether it was on-court altercations, quarrels with coaches and teammates, or multiple arrests for drug possession and spousal abuse, which helped perpetuate the perception of athletes as reckless, arrogant, shameless, immature, etc.

But it also begs the question of just how many NBA players suffer from undiagnosed substance abuse and/or mental illness. Houston Rockets rookie Royce White has a pretty good idea (i.e. the majority of them), and he wants to leverage his career as a platform to spread awareness about an issue he believes is at the heart of many of the aforementioned self-destructive tendencies. Ironically, Royce’s circumstances in Houston have highlighted just the types of frustration involved in dealing with an athlete who requires special or individualized attention, and the prevailing attitude among players, organizations, and even fans seems to be that they are more trouble than they‘re worth. White has embarked on a high-profile crusade against the Rockets organization over the type of care he believes is necessary to maintain his mental stability over the course of a grueling 82-game season, and regardless of the outcome, he’s managed to at least draw some attention to an issue that has up to this point been widely overlooked. It remains to be seen whether this will result in any new league-wide policies or initiatives designed to support/identify players who struggle with these issues.

To his credit, and to the ongoing aggravation of the Houston Rockets, White has rather shrewdly framed this debate in terms of its “accessibility” issues. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, aren’t employers required to provide reasonable accommodations to their employees in order for them to perform their job duties to the best of their ability? But this is where it all gets sticky. What, exactly, constitutes a reasonable accommodation? For example, how reasonable is it for White, who suffers from a paralyzing fear of flying, to, as an alternative, take a chartered bus to games in which it would reasonable for him to do so?

Once you start getting into the nitty gritty of this controversy, most people’s eyes start to glaze over.

Furthermore, Royce wants his generalized anxiety disorder treated as you would any other medical condition, and he loves to invoke the analogy that you wouldn’t expect him to travel with the team or play games if he had a broken leg. But many fans, and the American public in general, are reluctant to acknowledge many mental illnesses, let alone substance abuse, as medical conditions that require specialized treatment. A certain cynicism toward the issue has stemmed from the conflict of interests between pharmaceutical companies and medical providers (i.e that doctors are too eager to diagnose mental illness in order to increase sales of certain medications). There is also a widely-held perception that it has become somewhat trendy to suffer from a mental illness, in the way that gluten or lactose intolerance has become vaguely fashionable among health-conscious individuals.

The issue gets even more complicated when we start talking about professional athletes, who we expect to be both physically and mentally tough, which is more or less a prerequisite for competitive sports. There is a great deal of ego and machismo involved, and mental problems and substance abuse issues both carry an undeniable stigma, despite what we now understand about the psychology of addiction. Just look at how the sports world has responded to White’s situation, which is essentially that he needs to get over it (or “walk it off,” as your middle school coach might say).

Gambling addiction in particular is pervasive in the NBA. Players bet on card games during team flights and spend unfathomable amounts of money at casinos. But, as with other issues, it’s difficult to quantify just how endemic the problem really is. In 2006, Charles Barkley estimated that he has lost more than $10 million because of gambling, but qualifies this by arguing that he can personally afford to do so because of his considerable wealth.

This is just the type of careless attitude that the average fan finds infuriating, but doesn’t blowing millions of dollars and having nothing to show for it seem, for lack of a better word, insane? Or is it all just part of the culture of professional sports, something that we’re aware of but would rather ignore for the sake of entertainment? Does the league have a moral or ethical responsibility to address the problem in order to help players be the responsible, healthy citizens that in many other areas they are already expected, nay required, to be?

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2 Responses to Burning Questions: what to do about the culture of excess in professional sports

  1. kcflight says:

    Great post. It’s sad that the athletes spend their money so fast. They have most of their lives ahead of them but that can’t seem to see that they won’t play basketball forever.

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