ESPN’s most excellent documentary series 30 For 30 began it’s second “season” last night and I couldn’t be happier. Initially started to commemorate their 30th anniversary with 30 documentaries of varying length and from various directors, the series became so critically lauded and popular that ESPN has decided to continue it (thus making the 30 For 30 name somewhat confusing and meaningless but… oh well) with another round of 30. Last nights premiere episode Broke came from director Billy Corben, famous for Cocaine Cowboys and also part of the first series with the Miami Football rabblerouser highlight The U.
While Broke doesn’t have the electric cast of The U (and how are you supposed to beat Luther Campbell and Michael Irvin?), it has a more interesting topic that Corben tackles with middling success: the staggering percentage of professional athletes who – despite their unfathomable paychecks – end up going broke within years of their retirements. The fact that 78% of NFL players are “broke” (a term that isn’t fully defined, which belies some of the doc’s failings) within only 2 years of their exit from the league is equal parts frustrating and heartbreaking.
Corben, a consummate sensationalist, seems to at times revel in showing off just how all these athletes burned away their cash (focusing in on people like Andre Rison – who never takes off his sunglasses because… he’s Andre Rison – Bernie Kosar, Curt Schilling, Leon Searcy, and Bart Scott [for no reason]). For this section Corben’s style is perfect, mirroring the incredibly fast pace at which these young men went from either college or high school athletes with no money (or financial know-how) to speak of, to superstars trying to cash 6 figure checks at a western union. While I hate to say it, this portion of the movie is somewhat “fun” as even the athletes light up remembering the “good times.”
Because that, as Corben shows, is the main problem: the need for constant “good times”, and the way the definition of that is manipulated by people around the providers. Multiple mansions, luxury cars, jewelry, bottle service: all of the usual suspects are there, but they are actually the least sinister villains presented here. Where you can really see the sadness creep into these battered retirees eyes is when the subjects of entourages and money loans come up. It’s with truly painful embarrassment that Kosar reminisces about paying over 60 cell phone bills at once for people from his neighborhood.
Buying houses for any and everyone. Searcy remarks how so-called “friends” mapped out his paycheck dates and would wait outside the practice facilities knowing he had money in hand, making it impossible for him to turn them down. Then there’s the agents, “money managers”, advisors and what have you who basically scam them into bad investments and worse salaries (one athlete loses tons of money on an ill-fated enterprise to develop tomatoes the size of watermelons. Yes.). You’ll notice I’m focusing almost exclusively on the razzly tales of money spent, without much diving into any psychology and that’s because that’s what the movie does.
Broke cannot be one of the best 30 For 30s because it refuses to take that extra step into pathos, but for a 75 minute watch, it’s good sports TV. It also – hopefully – will serve as a warning for any young athletes who see it (there’s even a somewhat conspicuous section at the end where an economist breaks down exactly what a young pro should do with his money, information that seems somewhat meaningless to the casual viewer). Broke is short on answers for the retirees however, perhaps because there are none. With an average career span of 3 years and the weight of injury, family, mortgages, etc., the fact is our professional sports paradigm is perhaps not as rewarding as we perceive it to be. Still… people want to play.- Whole Milk