Broke and Divorced

More on MYTHS About Professional Athletes

News flash! All professional athletes are going broke and getting divorced!  78% of NFL'ers.  60% of NBA athletes.  And it happens fast! Within 2 to 5 years of your last game.  If you are athlete, hunker down. If you are fan, think to yourself, ‘these athletes are so stupid, how can they lose all that money’.

These were claims made in Pablo S. Torre Sports Illustrated article titled, 'How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke', published in 2009, almost 10 years ago. As outlined in a previous post you can read here; these numbers are utterly false.  They were made up. They were pulled out of someone's (if charitably described) hat. They have no basis in fact.  In my post, I cite research that directly contradicts the 'facts' outlined in Torre’s article.

Mr. Torre used this article to jump-start his career and is now working at ESPN as a media personality. Good for him.  Hopefully, ESPN fact checkers have a higher bar.

I continue to come back to this issue because the damage done by this one article is pervasive and insidious.  Professional athletes themselves refer to these statistics.  They say in our conversations, 'Hey man, I don't want to be that guy in 5 years broke and divorced'.

No shit. No one does.

Torre’s article has been quoted in academic texts and further entrenched the idea that the vast majority of elite athletes are infantile, uni-dimensional, idiotic and helpless. This garbage narrative in my view has led many elite athletes, who are already wary (with good reason), to become even more insular, cautious and untrusting.  The consequence?  

Athletes are less likely to step outside of their sport and their current social circles to take off the sports blinders for fear of falling into this bucket of 'broken, divorced and washed up.'  Research we have undertaken internally and research conducted internationally has indicated that there is, in fact, massive value for an individual athlete to engage in interests and activities beyond the game.  Athletes who self-report participating in activities and interactions beyond the game realize the following benefits:

  • Longer careers

  • Greater career earnings

  • Greater capacity to deal with negative influences or challenges

  • Report less stress and anxiety related to their sport in comparison to their peers

These significant positives derive from the simple act of stepping outside the game and meeting new people, trying new things and engaging in activities separate from their sport.  Athletes who subscribe to Torre’s dystopian view of the professional athlete lifestyle landscape are far less inclined to take that step.  

Not taking that step hurts athletes tomorrow but it also hurts them today. As in right now!  It makes them less effective athletes. At its core, the inability of the athlete to engage beyond the game is a performance issue.  Sports executives, coaches, owners and fans who think athletes should only be dialed exclusively into their sport are so old school you have to wonder what the name of the donkey was that took them to the office on that particular day.

Athletes need to be aware of who they interact with, who manages their money and what process they go through before conducting a business transaction.  However, if athletes hermetically seal themselves off from influences outside of their sport, they are effectively shooting themselves in the foot.  The information athletes get becomes narrower.  The access to expertise they have is limited. The role of the game gets blown out of proportion to the person.   

The knock on effects of that approach is intense and multiple, just to name a few:

  • Less consistent athletic performance

  • Lousy advice personally, professionally and financially can't be quality controlled

  • Less capacity to deal with sport and non sport related stress

  • Transition out of the game becomes harder

  • Post transition decisions become compressed and more challenging

Professional athletes need to take solace in the fact that Torre’s story was sensationalist trash.  Athletes have worked their asses off to earn a shot at their dream.  Instead of building walls that cut them off from society they need to engage in a proactive strategy to leverage the platform and opportunity that their athletic skills have garnered them and engage, engage,engage in the world and their interests beyond their sport.

If they do that they will be better people. They’ll also be better athletes.

Game Change was founded in 2011 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’.
Duncan Fletcher