Saturday, March 30, 2013

Athletes going bankrupt: We can stop it

I read the obituary of Ray Williams in the March 25, 2013, issue of the New York Times.  A talented basketball player, Ray Williams started his career playing for the New York Knicks and later for the New Jersey Nets. He also played for the Celtics, the Atlanta Hawks, and the San Antonio Spurs. As the article mentioned, “he had an outstanding shooting touch, he possessed superb body control, and had dazzled the crowds at Madison Square Garden in the late 1970s and early 1980s.” By the time his NBA career ended, he had accumulated impressive statistics.  His private life after he stopped playing is another story. While Williams had earned millions during his career, he declared bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, his marriage broke up, and by the summer of 2010 he was homeless, living in his car in Florida. After he talked about his problems in an interview with the Boston Globe, he received an offer from the mayor of his native Mount Vernon, New York, to work with youngsters at a recreational center. A former teammate interviewed for the article noted that “Williams flourished on the court but, like many athletes, was not prepared for life after the game.”

Williams’s story is surprisingly similar to that of many other athletes. Successful, skillful, and with impressive records, many athletes end up in bankruptcy courts, sometimes as soon as two years after they stop playing. Money mismanagement seems to be the norm, even if players, as in the case of Williams, had earned millions of dollars in their career. But the career of a professional athlete is short; they are lucky to be active past age 35. Their professional skills are many but do not necessarily translate into opportunities for jobs after they stop playing.

There are powerful lessons in these stories. First, skill, talent, and intelligence are not enough to manage finances. Incredibly successful athletes are able to do things that are unimaginable for the rest of us (I, for one, am so inept in basketball that I once fell on my face while trying to dunk a ball; I was alone on the court, so I could not even blame a teammate!) but they cannot necessarily be expected to be as skillful at managing money. While many people believe managing money is not rocket science (I am afraid it is), we need more than general skills to deal with high earnings, especially when those earnings last for only a few years. Second, while we recognize the importance of training to success in the game (and in any job, really), we tend to give less thought to how be successful in other parts of our life, such as managing our finances, which is equally important given that at a certain point we will stop working at our successful (or unsuccessful) jobs and need to support ourselves. 

There is a little bit of Ray Williams in all of us. How many of us have planned for the future so as to be able to support ourselves after we stop working? This is something that most people don’t start to think about until they reach middle-age. Fortunately, regular jobs last for a long time and we can earn income over a long career. But for professional athletes whose careers are very short, a lot more preparation is needed for “life after the game.” Three suggestions come to mind. Let’s make sure that athletes graduate from college so they have a degree they can rely on after they stop playing (Ray Williams did not graduate from Minnesota, where he studied after a year at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas). Let’s add money management to their courses before they go pro. We all need those courses, but the athletes even more! Finally, let’s create programs for professional athletes so that when they stop playing they can use their fame, skills, discipline, outstanding shooting touch, and superb body control to dazzle in their new jobs. 

All of us who cannot dunk without being hurt would enjoy seeing our heroes do well both on and off the basketball court.

No comments: