| DESTROYING THE MYTH OF THE BANKRUPT ATHLETE |

When you hear something over and over and over again it becomes fact. Research backs it up.  If something is repeated again and again and again, its deemed to be true.  Or at least plausible. Dictators know this.  Fox News knows this.  The maxim of three sides to every story is so true.  Your story.  My story.  And the facts.

A key ‘fact’ that drives the industry in which I work (Athlete Development or Player Development) is that the vast majority of professional athletes upon leaving sport will be broke and/or divorced within two years.  In 2009, an article released in Sport Illustrated written by Pablo S. Torre titled How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke cited two key statistics:

  • By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.
  • Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

It is one of the most popular articles ever written for SI.  You would think these statistics would keep Athlete Development Specialists, leagues and player association leadership up at night.

They are mind boggling numbers.  They paint a desperate picture of professional athletes who once lived the high-life, but are now clipping coupons and seeking fresh cardboard for their makeshift home underneath the highway overpass.  Moreover, the sheer economic  loss would be staggering. Amongst the 4 major professional sports (NFL, MLB, NHL, NBA) these athletes are paid, before tax, roughly $12 billion dollars annually. The idea that more than $8 billion of those dollars just disappears is not only tragic, but nothing short of scandalous.

Fortunately, these statistics are complete and utter bullshit fabrication.

There has been no published study, white paper, article or research paper which in anyway shape or form suggests that these numbers  are even remotely accurate.  Despite searches by Ivy League interns, professors at institutions of higher learning no work has been unturned which supports these claims.  The article written by Torre does not cite any specific research but instead claims that these statistics are derived from, “… a host of sources (athletes, players’ associations, agents and financial advisers)…”.  To call that an egregious miss by SI fact checkers would be generous (Torre never returned phone calls to discuss where he sourced this data). These figures are simply made up.

THE ARTICLE WRITTEN BY TORRE DOES NOT CITE ANY SPECIFIC RESEARCH…TO CALL THAT AN EGREGIOUS MISS BY SI FACT CHECKERS WOULD BE GENEROUS. THESE FIGURES ARE SIMPLY MADE UP.

The National Football League conducted a study with the University of Michigan, where they found that on the whole retired players aren’t in financial shambles or all living life post divorce.  The study noted, “retired players are in good financial shape overall, although there are small percentages of retired players who report financial difficulty.”  Even, if the data presented by UM skewed in the NFL’s favour, it would be difficult to infer a rate of bankruptcy approaching 78%. [As a side note, any one that can provide peer reviewed published research that supports the claims made in Torre’s article.   Call me.  Seriously.

|Update! A recent paper was released that found that only 16% of NFL players went bankrupt.  1.9% in the first 2 years.  The 16% rate is similar to the bankruptcy rate of American males aged 25-34|]

So why does the mythology of the bankrupt and divorced athlete exist?

It exists for one simple reason, in my opinion.  Money. As I noted earlier, athletes as a cohort make a lot of money.  It is money that is obvious.  The terms of player contracts are announced for public consumption.  If the public announcement of large contracts to young athletes were akin to blood in the water, than the sharks that showed up would be wearing suits and ties and offering, ‘world class financial advice’.  The colleagues that I work with, depending on the sport, mention how in a given month they will hear from between 5 to 25 financial advisers seeking to break into the athlete market.  They offer free education.  Free advice.  Free insurance seminars. Portfolio assessments (wait for it), for free.  I personally have been offered kickback ‘commissions’ for directing athletes to individual financial advisers.

So what?  The what is, what better way to develop your athlete based book of investment business than by being the guy who brands himself as the guru who knows about how horrible athletes are at investing their money.  What if you were to actively scare the living shit out of every professional athlete by say…producing a movie like ‘Broke‘, that tells them that they only have a 1 in 4 chance of not losing everything they have worked their entire lives to earn.  Perhaps, enacting that kind of strategy would give you the appearance of being some kind of an honest broker, a truth teller, someone who could in fact be trusted.  Perhaps the kind of person that an athlete might want to have manage their investments…

Let there be no doubt that the more that is done to assist athletes in avoiding the negative outcomes discussed in forums like ‘Broke’, the greater the opportunity for the athlete, her family and her community.  There is also no doubt that athletes have and will continue to make bad financial decisions.  Athletes will get divorced.  Some will go bankrupt.  More will be swindled by shady financial advisers.  In that context,  perhaps a ‘scare them straight approach’ by cherry picking the worst outcomes and then telling outright lies to athletes about their future financial reality is the right approach.   However, I would contend that people like Torre and Ed Butowsky  are directly responsible for further muddying the waters.  

Presenting ‘facts’ that 3/4’s of athletes are infantile, impulsive and irresponsible to the point of being bankrupt distorts what is really taking place in the athlete community (in fact at the end of the movie Broke only 60 athletes are shown having gone bankrupt – shouldn’t this at least be in the hundreds or thousands).  It makes professional athletes who are already incredibly insular, even more so.  They become even more distrustful.  And even less likely to seek help and good counsel.

In fact, the vast majority of athletes retire from sport to little acclaim.  They struggle with the transition from athletics.  But it doesn’t destroy them.  They raise their families.  They have jobs.  The vast majority know they have been extraordinarily lucky and seek to give back to their communities in any way they can. However, the narrative of the professional athlete as a regular ‘civilian’ is unprofitable.  That narrative goes against type.  It doesn’t get athletes to invest their money with your ‘honest broker’ firm. It doesn’t get movies made.  It doesn’t sell ad space on ESPN.com.  It doesn’t become the most popular article on SI.

If you are an athlete reading this 75% of your colleagues aren’t going broke and getting divorced. It just isn’t happening.  Can you become a cautionary tale by making bad decisions and getting involved with the wrong people? Absolutely.  But it is not the norm.

Repeat after me.  Most professional athletes retire to raise their kids the best they can.  Most professional athletes retire to raise their kids the best they can.  Most professional athletes retire….


Game Change was founded in 2012 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.