Ever since his 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys became a hit for its hair-raising tales of money and murder in the South Florida drug scene—prompting a 2008 sequel that focused on the Griselda Blanco, the murderous “Godmother” of Columbia—Miami-based director Billy Corben has become a prolific, energetic chronicler of conspicuous consumption. In films like Square Grouper: The Godfathers Of Ganja (so named for the bales of marijuana dumped out of airplanes in South Florida in the ’70s and ’80s), Limelight (about the rise and fall of New York City club owner Peter Gatien), and his previous 30 For 30 doc The U (about the glories and excesses of the Miami Hurricanes football program), Corben has revealed an attraction to the outlaw lifestyle and its crash-and-burn consequences. He has the instincts of a yellow journalist, with a style that’s hyper-aggressive and brimming with salacious detail. His films are fast-paced, compulsive viewing, but his Achilles’ heel is also his subjects’: He doesn’t know when to stop.
Opening a new round of 30 For 30 documentaries—and hallelujah for that—Corben’s Broke tackles the enormous and important issue of how professional athletes mismanage their fortunes. And it does it the Corben way: With a non-stop fusillade of testimonials from a broad spectrum of relevant voices, and virtually no time for viewers to take a breath and contemplate what’s being said. For better and worse, it’s a relentless 75 minutes of chatter that covers a multi-dimensional problem from all the key angles, surveying retired athletes, coaches, financial analysts, journalists, and even baller-exploiting “bloggers” to figure out where all the millions went. In contrast to a comparable film like Lucky, which followed just a handful of tales about regretful lottery winners (much like director Jeffrey Blitz’s previous doc, Spellbound), Corben’s stories of woe are clipped and multiplied, to where the sheer quantity of them overwhelms what might have been accomplished by only a few well-drawn examples.
Though he jumps around to all the major sports, Corben throws most of the focus on the NFL, where 78 percent of athletes either go bankrupt or are under financial stress once they leave the game. There are good reasons for this: Pro football players have the shortest careers (three-and-a-half years on average), non-guaranteed contracts, and the worst injury rates, resulting in massive health care costs for long-term damage to the body and head. Many athletes lack the education or training to transition into a stable living after retiring in their late 20s or early 30s, so they have only a small amount of time to make a lifetime’s worth of dough. The trouble is, they’re getting this windfall at the time in their lives when they’re least inclined to be pragmatic about it.
Part investigation, part PSA for would-be spendthrifts, Broke gathers several retired players—Andre Rison, Bernie Kosar, Keith McCants, and Leon Searcy from the NFL, Cliff Floyd and Curt Schilling from MLB, and others—as cautionary tales in what not to do with multimillion-dollar contracts. (Some mention is made of the many non-superstars—or “thousandaires”—who are part of professional sports, too, but their financial limitations are taken mostly as a given.) Corben runs through a long list of factors that can separate athletes from their money. For most, there are the lifestyle excesses, spurred by the same can-you-top-this competitive spirit that drives them on the field—that need to have multiple houses and cars, the $50,000 necklaces and mink coats, “making it rain” cash at strip clubs and other wild bacchanals. (Former NBA star Jamal Mashburn, who’s managed to transition smoothly into post-retirement entrepreneurship, talks of getting a Ferrari as a signing bonus for an endorsement deal and keeping it in his garage because he didn’t know how to drive stick.) Rison, the most colorful figure here (as he was in his playing career), still seems drunk on the memory of his freewheeling expenditure.
Corben ticks off a number of other drains, too: Uncle Sam, who’s taking a bigger chunk off the top than the comparable money made by better-insulated Wall Street types; friends and family, especially from impoverished neighborhoods, who see these athletes as their personal ATMs; high divorce rates and/or child support payments; an addiction to high-stakes gambling; dubious investment opportunities that often lead to financial exploitation; mountains of debt from credit card usage; the costly long-term health problems incurred by a career filled with surgeries and concussions (especially in the NFL); and a general lack of education about how to manage their finances so they’ll have something left over for retirement.
On this last point, New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, the most insightful of Corben’s gallery of journalists, brings the hammer down on colleges that make millions off these players while insisting they retain their “amateur,” student/athlete status, thus ensuring that they’ll enter the pros without a financial education or the battery of professionals (accountants, advisers, lawyers, etc.) that could help manage their affairs. Corben shows footage of former NFL coach Herman Edwards trying to preach responsibility to half-bored players at rookie camp, but the film suggests that changing the culture will take some doing—it’s hard to promote the virtues of sobriety to young people drunk on fast wealth, living paycheck-to-paycheck as if they were still below the poverty line.
Corben gives enough of a taste of these athletes’ stories that it’s a shame he couldn’t give more: There’s Kosar, former quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, who tells of a father (and an ex-wife) that he spent a lifetime trying and failing to please; McCants, a former defensive phenom who played for six seasons in the NFL, who’s dealing with injuries that fueled severe depression and three drug convictions; and the ever-flashy Rison, who famously had one of his houses burned to the ground by the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. A deeper look into any of their lives might have given these cautionary tales more force, but Corben seems content to put them on a stage, get the interview snippets he needs, and move on to the next subject. Broke never gets too far beneath the surface.
Then again, that surface is a lot to cover. Corben has a big issue on his hands and he wants to cover it as comprehensively as possible, even if it means sacrificing more detailed portraiture in the process. Beyond his own gallery of subjects, Corben makes mention of virtually every high-profile story of financial ruin in recent memory, from Lenny Dykstra’s tragicomic endeavors as a stock guru to Schilling’s fat investment in a failed video game development company. Broke doesn’t aspire to be a film about the financial woes of professional athletes but the film about the financial woes of professional athletes. And at 75 frantic minutes, that’s a tall order.
- Living paycheck-to-paycheck: Athletes talk about taking their first check to a check-cashing place.
- I normally can’t abide Darren Rovell, but he makes some good contributions here, including a story about Rickey Henderson framing his first check without cashing it first.
- Of the many mini-documentaries I wish could be full-length: Would love to see a look into BallerAlert and other sites that deliver available women to athletes.
- Funny detail about car washes being a favorite bad investment among players.
- Another documentary I’d like to see: The business misadventures of Rocket Ismail.
- Question for after everyone has seen it: To what extent do you think Broke was intended as a scared-straight video for athletes? Are they more the audience for it than we are?