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30 for 30 Review: “Broke”

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I'll bet Mike Tyson wishes he still had some of this cash. Photo unknown via esquire.com

[Editor’s note: Non-baseball, non-Nationals post.  Originally written in early October right after this show aired but saved until baseball season was over.  If you have some time, I highly suggest either getting it on-demand or find a re-run].

The fantastic 30 for 30 series is back on ESPN.   The great news was first published in May 2012 and the first installment of the new series aired on 10/2/12.  I like doing reviews of the 30 for 30 series (if you search for “30 for 30″ in quotes you can see some of the past reviews on this site), and I’ll try to do them for the new episodes.  If you’re interested in past looks at ESPN Films and my thoughts on the original series, you can click “30 for 30″ in the Category Tab to the right and get all posts on the topic.

First up in the new series, “Broke,” a 1.5 hour documentary by director Billy Corben about the amazing propensity for professional athletes to go bankrupt soon after retiring despite having made millions in career earnings.  This is essentially a documentary version of the seminal 2009 Sports Illustrated article on the same topic.  The film had some decent  interviews and covered several of the typical pitfalls that cause athletes to squander money.  In no particular order; blatant overspending on cars, jewelry and houses, financing your family, neighborhood and your entourage, poor choices in advisors, poor financial advice from these “advisors,” squandered business investment, predatory women and marriages, child-support payments that are tied to a player’s salary, and of course the most basic one; absolutely zero retirement planning.

(If you want to read some  highlight quotes from the documentary, click on thisBusinessInsider.com link here.  If you want to read Jason Whitlock‘s op-ed piece inspired by the documentary, click here.  Lastly, a review from Hitfix.com on both Broke and the 2nd in the series is here; we’ll cover 9.79 in a separate post).

My quick review: liked the subject matter, didn’t like the presentation.

The subject matter continues to be topical, nearly every year we hear about guys who have gone broke.  The documentary listed dozens and dozens of them at the end of the film.  I’ve often wondered how these guys manage to go broke despite 10s of millions of dollars in guaranteed income, but in reality its relatively easy.  You can somewhat excuse it when a guy like Curt Schilling loses his baseball fortune attempting to start a software company, but its a bit more inexcusable when you hear about a guy who “makes it rain” in strip clubs with hundred dollar bills.  That being said, for every Magic Johnson (who has made a massive fortune owning/operating Movie Theatures and Starbucks franchises, of which he owns more than 100) there are dozens of tales of investments in Car Washes, Restaurants and Record Companies going bad.  The film prominently featured Jamal Mashburn, who has turned his lucrative NBA career into the next coming of Johnson; he’s followed Magic’s lead and purchased dozens of franchises in Kentucky; per wikipedia and the film he owns 34 Outback Steakhouses, 37 Papa John’s franchises and a number of car dealerships.  Just 40, he’s apparently amassed enough wealth to be in the discussion to purchase an NBA Franchise.

The most egregious examples of pro athletes going broke were not interviewed for the film; Allen Iverson (career earnings in excess of $200 million including salary and endorsements), Evander Holyfield (career earnings estimated at about $200M), Antoine Walker (career earnings of $110M before taxes), Vince Young (ALREADY broke despite a $26M guaranteed contract just 6 years ago!)  and the most ridiculous example being Mike Tyson (career earnings of $400M, all gone).   A bit of googling resulted in this interesting “Top 10 worst Financial Meltdowns by Athletes” and its a bit mind boggling.  The director noted that most of these guys who have been forced to declare bankrupcy for vast sums are far too embarassed to appear on the film, hence the rather random collection of on-screen athletes who did appear (among others, Bernie KosarAndre RisonKeith McCants, Sean Salisbury and Cliff Floyd).   I’d say that Rison was probably the closest we’ll see to the blatant modern-day squandering of money that we hear stories about, while Kosar and Salisbury befell some of the other classical bankrupcy issues mentioned above.

The section on predatory women was kind of sad really; the film interviewed a blogger whose site (Baller Alert.com, I kid you not) sends out alerts to female subscribers if/when they find out that basketball players are going to be at a certain location.  The blogger noted that one time she announced that an NBA player was at a club in DC and an hour later 1,000 women showed up.   This isn’t the first time I’ve read about this culture in the pro sports world; the book Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan the author decided to find out how easy it was to bait a pro athlete into hooking up, so he recruited a former girlfriend, she got some “coaching” as to how to dress and act, and they inserted her into a bar situation where a known pro athlete was present.  Sure enough, the athlete sent over a handler and tried to press onwards with a relationship.

I was left with two overriding thoughts after watching the film:

1. It was really, really difficult to watch this film as a middle-aged white male and not pass judgement on the ridiculous spending exploits of predominantly young black males.  I alluded to salary just a couple weeks ago in this space, talking about how John Lannan was set for life on the basis of his $5M 2012 contract and how I didn’t necessarily feel sorry for the guy.  But the fact is that most athletes don’t see a singular payday this way.  The film certainly wasn’t apologetic for these guys getting into trouble; it merely analyzed what generally happens to these  young players.  They get paid, they spend money, they make mistakes, they have children out of wedlock and incur massive monthly payments, they buy 5 houses and 8 cars, they don’t plan for the future … and then suddenly they’re out of the game and they go from millions a year to Zero income.  It is a common tale.  This documentary certainly isn’t EXCUSING this behavior; it just explains how it happens.

2. I’m surprised that the pro sports don’t do more to heed this off.  The film showed Herm Edwards giving the incoming NFL rookies his speech at the Rookie Symposium … and then talked about how most rookies sleep through the sessions.  I’m surprised that the unions havn’t recognized this as a massive problem and forced some sort of IRA contribution out of their players upon entrance to the leagues.

From a “film critic” stand-point, while the subject matter was pretty interesting I wouldn’t rank this film with the upper echelon of 30-for-30 works (“The Two Escobars,” “Four days in October” being some of the best of the original run).  I thought it could have been done in an hour, I thought it should have done a better job focusing on the more egregious cases of players gone bankrupt, I thought they could have found better representatives to talk than guys like Homer Bush and Sean Salisbury (Homer Bush!?  I had to look him up on b-r.com: 409 career games?  And he’s talking about athletes squandering millions?  Well, he did manage to make $7.7M per his b-r page, so that’s not chump change.  Bush reportedly was not happy with the way he was portrayed in this film, as mentioned on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast).  Lastly I thought having the SAME song playing for virtually the entire show got old, fast.  Critics didn’t like the “soundbyte after soundbyte” presentation, which lasted well into the film.

ESPN Films “The Real Rocky” — a review

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Hmm. Turns out Stallone had some inspiration for the Rocky franchise. Photo screen-grab from Rocky I.

(latest in an ongoing series of “reviews” of ESPN films releases.  See here for Wikipedia list of all the original 30-for-30 films plus the add-ons).

“The Real Rocky” was an entertaining look into the life of Chuck Wepner, interspersed with snippets from the ongoing saga of his lawsuit against Sylvester Stallone, with Wepner narrating his life and all its ups and down in a matter-of-fact manner.  All the while, a treasure trove of old boxing clippings, never-before-seen video of fights from the 60s and 70s and other classic boxing memorabilia were shown as supporting graphics and gave the documentary a very nice feel as it played out.  The documentary does a good job of capturing the story of Wepner; a rather amazing story of a talented but relatively unskilled former marine who sold liquor by day and somehow ascended to be ranked the #8 Heavyweight boxer in the world in his spare time, during a time when Muhammad Ali ruled the sporting world and boxing never was more popular.  He picked up the sport on a whim and quickly won a Golden Gloves championship, rocketing him into the professional ranks in his mid 20s.

The documentary also serves as a great reminder of just how far the sport has fallen in the wake of corruption, unethical promoters, multiple sanctioning agencies, and general American attention spans turning to MMA/Ultimate Fighting in the wake of Mike Tyson‘s downfall and a lack of highly ranked Americans in the sport.  People forget that boxing used to be as popular a draw as the modern day “big-4″ sports, with its champions regularly making front page sports news.  Perhaps this was mostly attributable to the incredible self marketing ability of Ali himself; certainly the sporting world has yet to really see someone like him since.

Throughout the movie, a small band of (mostly New York-based) newspaper writers held court in a dark, smoky bar setting and opined about Wepner, his fights, and the golden age of boxing in general.  I would have loved to see ESPN’s excellent set of boxing analysts be included in this round-table, as Bert Sugar, Teddy Atlas, Max Kellerman and Brian Kenny all are excellent analysts and have great opinions to add about boxing of yesteryear.  It was surprising that an ESPN production didn’t seem to use any of its own people, perhaps something they decided not to force on the film-maker.

One takeaway point that I found fascinating was the attempts (both covert and overt) by Ali to turn the fight into a “racial war;” he reportedly asked Wepner to call him the “N-word” in a press conference, and when Wepner declined Ali forced the issue by alleging it on a talk show live and “inventing” some conflict.  Clearly an act of showmanship, and an attempt to drum up even more interest in the fight.  I would have loved to see an interview with Ali himself; clearly his declining current physical condition prevented this.  But I’m surprised an attempt wasn’t made to at least get some film time for the former champ.

Wepner held his own when the fight eventually occurred, sticking to an aggressive game plan and even knocking down Ali before taking a barrage of punches from the champion and eventually being overcome in the 15th round.  The image of Wepner, who had such a reputation for bleeding that his nickname in the boxing world was “the Bayonne Bleeder” (he lived, and still resides, in Bayonne, NJ), bloodied and literally unconscious on his feet after the fight was stopped was gripping.  To me it was a clear example of why even a blood-sport needed to go from 15-rounds to 12-round competitions so as to protect its boxers.

The Stallone-Wepner connection, which was the subject of a lawsuit finally filed nearly 30 years after the first Rocky movie aired, became more and more clear as the movie went on.  Stallone clearly attributed his inspiration for the screen play to Wepner, and over the years called him frequently, met with him and freely spoke of using life experiences of Wepner’s in subsequent movies (both in and out of the Rocky franchise).  When it became clear that Wepner never had made a dime off Stallone’s success, and at the urging of his 3rd wife, Wepner filed suit to get some compensation for a lifetime of having his stories turned into profit centers for others.  Amazingly, in the face of a preponderance of evidence, Stallone was deposed and claimed to have never even considered Wepner as a source.  It was of little surprise to note that Wepner eventually settled out of court, though apparently the monetary settlement was “not very large.”  Wepner continues to work to this day, in the same liquor outside sales job he always worked, despite being in his 70s.  He has been able to cash in on his fame, and seems to enjoy the speaking engagements and appearances that he gets on a consistent basis.  That was great to see, and unlike so many other retired athletes who go bankrupt or who lose their earned fortunes in failed business deals or via shady advisers, Wepner lives a happy, comfortable life.

In conjunction with the release of the film on October 25th (one week earlier than it was supposed to air), Grantland’s Michael Weinreb posted a great story on the new ESPN off-shoot site, worth a read.  And the documentary itself is worth a watch, even if you’re not a boxing fan.

Written by Todd Boss

October 31st, 2011 at 9:19 am