Professional Exploitation as Entertainment
ESPN’s popular documentary series “30 for 30” (ESPN celebrated its 30th year in 2011 with 30 documentaries covering major sporting events during its tenure) returned Tuesday night with Broke, a long-form series of talking head interviews with former athletes who have declared bankruptcy and a few industry experts. Directed by Billy Corben, of Cocaine Cowboys fame and a “30 for 30” alum, the film works as a series of talking head interviews describing how and why professional athletes can fail so spectacularly at financial management. Seemingly simple on the surface, this is a highly-nuanced problem deeply rooted in our cultural values. Sadly, none of that context is provided here.
The documentary does a great job of describing the problem through entertaining anecdotes, but description alone is at worst meant to entertain, at best to scare current and future athletes straight. Former Cleveland Brown star quarterback, Bernie Kosar, estimates he supported 25-50 households, a claim that underscores the problem with this presentation. 25-50 is a meaningless range. It is no different than saying he supported ‘a lot’ of families. It offers no context or subtext, does nothing to further our understanding of how these situations develop, worse, we learn nothing of how to educate current and future athletes on avoiding these situations.
The trivial nature of the program belittles the problem. Perhaps, as a society, we do view this as a very minor problem with no substantial consequences. Broke would seem to support such a conclusion. There are far greater concerns left unaddressed.
The business of athletics in America is exploitative by nature. Beginning at a very young age (collegiate coaches are securing verbal commitments from 13 year old athletes), we sort out the top athletes and begin grooming them for the next level of competition. AAU basketball leagues start with kids in 2nd grade (6– 9 years old) and while for many they are simply an fun way to engage in sports, the program is designed to identify top athletes. Those who show athletic promise are quickly ushered into a very different childhood experience. Schools are chosen not by residential location or academic quality, but for their access to top coaches and exposure to top competition. Travelling teams are formed to showcase the players in tournaments around the country, exposing young athletes to recruiters, agents, sponsors, organizers, and other adults looking to profit from the venture.
The documentary barely skims the surface of the way we raise our young athletes and the culture surrounding youth athletics. Digging into the business side of youth athletics, you are far less likely to find people willing to sit on camera and tell stories. Coaches are not going to acknowledge they push players to dangerous physical limits chasing wins, accolades, raises, and promotions. Agents are not likely to tell stories of giving cash and gifts to promising young athletes to gain access and future clients. Recruiters and staff for college programs do not willingly describe the methods used to sell kids on attending their school.
What we use to entice young athletes is exposure to and the promise of luxury. We give them a glimpse of life where money is gifted for great performance; where access to cars and clothes and electronics is the pay off for their hard work. In essence, we teach them to consider material possession as evidence of status and achievement. This is a terrible form of exploitation as we simultaneously allow adults to use the kids for profit while not paying them for their services or providing any meaningful education.
The scam that is scholarships for athletic services is also avoiding in Broke. We continue to accept the idea that colleges should be able to use athletes to fill stadiums, sell apparel, and sign billion-dollar television contracts without paying the athletes. The pretext for this scam is that we are offering the athletes a free college education. Setting aside that argument, we should be asking what value that education is if so many professional athletes, who received this benefit, appear to have learned nothing of smart financial management. Few professional athletes chose collegiate academic curriculum with the intent of developing a particular knowledge and skill set. Several major in a media-related program with the vague notion of a broadcasting career later in life. Very few will achieve that. What Broke might have asked is what could colleges be doing to remedy this problem; how can we develop education programs for athletes at a younger age to educate them against the pitfalls of excessive consumer spending?
In Broke there is significant time given to discussing how professional athletes are abused by family, friends, women chasing dollars, agents, financial scammers, and other people looking to cash in on their ignorance. The documentary steers clear of the racial component underlying much of this conversation, preferring to entertain us with stories of bad behavior and poor decision-making. The result is we reduce what is a systemic cultural problem to a sideshow; something we laugh and gawk at and reaffirm our own superiority.
This is a dangerous misconception. Too many of us live at the extent of our means, relying on debt and credit to for luxuries and vacations and emergency spending. We are not unlike the athletes squandering our limited resources. The difference is, for most of us, our earning potential is not dramatically reduced a few years into our career. Professional athletes can make fantastic sums of money for their efforts, but for a very limited time. A person who plays football from age seven to 30 will have only been able to directly profit for eight or nine of those 23 years. Afterward, they have lost the ability to perform at a level they will be paid for and cannot replace the level of earning they had. We are doing far too little to prepare them for this moment and it must begin long before they join a professional league.
Capitalism has done miraculous things for the human condition, but it has come with a cost. We are raised in a consumer culture because spending money can quickly grow our economy. Spending money does not produce more money though, and learning how to manage money and spending before you end up broke is as great a social burden as health and safety. Broke was a missed opportunity and there is little funny about that.