ESPN tonight begins rolling out its next batch of 30 for 30 documentaries in a few hours, beginning with “Broke,” a film about athletes and money does the impossible by fostering sympathy for Andre Rison’s financial straits.
It’s great to have 30 for 30 back. TV this measured, reserved and effective is a risk for the network, if only by loading down the ESPN brand with expectations that its stable of braying heads can’t hope to meet. “Broke” owes much of its attitude (as well as actual footage) to “Outside the Lines,” but mostly it does what cable networks do poorly: Finds a single through-line and regards individual events as symptomatic of a larger story. In this case, it’s the truly unfathomable collision of young athletes and millions of dollars. You’ll be amazed how fast $10 million can sound like chump change.
Here’s Tracy McGrady: “My first paycheck was $500,000.” Here’s Sean Salisbury: “I made more in one check than my father made in three years.” Fila tossed Jamal Mashburn a signing-bonus Ferrari before he knew how to drive stick. Curt Schilling took his first big check, converted it to twenties, sprinkled the loot across a hotel mattress and ordered room service. “I thought I would never be able to spend the amount, all of the money I had in my room at that one time,” he says in the film. The pitcher made more than $100 million in his career, then took a $40-million-plus bath on 38 Studios. That’s big-boy money any way you cut it. “It’s like you become CEO of a corporation,” Mashburn says of athletes’ contracts, “before you’re ready to have the job.”
“Broke” quotes a 2009 Sports Illustrated article that estimates three-quarters of NFL players are either under financial stress or have gone bankrupt two years after their retirement; for NBA players, 60 percent are bust five years after retirement. Then it walks through the reasons why: taxes, agents, family, friends, scammers, agent-scammers, family-scammers, friend-scammers, baller-groupies, child support, divorces. The overall effect is of a PSA for league rookies in any major sport. Owners will be bundling DVDs of “Broke” with the team gear they send over after draft day.
Mostly, though, “Broke” is about where ignorance meets ego. Athletes, speaking very broadly, have spent far too much time becoming amazing at sports to also be great at handling money. (Listen for the phrase “financially illiterate.”) They’re also saddled with the sort of competitive egos required to be amazing at sports, so they believe they should also be amazing at finance. But a million-dollar contract does not make one a millionaire, not when 10 or 15 percent goes to an agent, another 35 percent goes to the feds, 5 percent goes to the state, and on down the line. Once you sort out your expenses, pay your rent for a year, buy mom a house and dad a truck, the salary that everyone reads about in the paper (and pesters you for) is far more modest. Oh, and three or five or 10 years’ worth of earnings has to last you for the rest of your life. Once you’re through, as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera says, “Who’s going to hire you? What are they going to hire you for? What are your skills? What do you know how to do?”
Rison talks about having an entourage of 40 when he would go out and sling bills around clubs then wake up the next money with thousands of dollars spilling out of his pockets. Spending was a way to quiet “the little monster in you,” he says. Of the athletes interviewed in “Broke,” he remains in some ways the cagiest, tucked behind up-yours black sunglasses. Yeah, he was an asshole. Like so many similar assholes, he was spending money as fast as he could just to demonstrate that he could, which is the sort of thing only an asshole would even dream of doing with his money. But his girlfriend burned down his house, and he apparently used to just hand wads of cash to musicians so they could buy gear. He exemplified the risible athlete/rapper spender who basically dared himself to waste his fortune. He also embodies the sadder aspect of wealth and security squandered.
Former NFL linebacker Keith McCants, who was arrested after throwing pliers and a crack pipe at a cop, confesses that he pretty much gave all his money away. He appears in the film as a man truly broken. Love of money, he says, “destroyed everything around me. It destroyed my family. It destroyed my friends. And it will destroy you if you let it.” Bernie Kosar, who declared bankruptcy in 2009, ventures into similarly dark waters. “The bankruptcy stuff has been a blessing in disguise,” he says. “When people don’t think you have money, um, they don’t call you as much. Family included.” By the end, their downfalls make fabulous sense. Athletes are young, marginally educated, instantly rich and like the thrill of making cash fast. If you were in the business of screwing people out of money, what better place to start?