Billy Corben is a tomb of athlete secrets. Whatever the film director says in his trademark, spit-fire patter is only a fraction of the sordid tales of personal and professional ruin he’s got stored. That’s because last year, he directed what’s become the definitive documentary on the phenomenon of pros turned paupers: Broke.
The ESPN 30 For 30 film traced the rise and ruin of stars like former footballer Bernie Kosar and boxer Evander Holyfield. All follow eerily similar tales of folly: profligate spending, bad investments, financial mismanagement, and marriages and parenting gone sour.
And when Corben appeared on DNA to discuss both his film and the phenomenon of broke athletes overall, he blamed a couple of factors for this continuing pattern. First, there’s the lack of practical financial education both in school and, for the most part, in the pro leagues.
“They [athletes] go to college where they’re supposedly getting a scholarship and an education in exchange for their bones and their blood and their concussions for these schools, and generating billions of dollars,” Corben said. “But they’re not getting that education out of it, which is the real tragedy, because it’s avoidable.”
The obvious lack of education – plus publicized salaries – turn these twentysomething sudden millionaires into sitting ducks, he said.
“Everyone knows how much money they make. It’s a matter of public record. That’s become more of the story than even the stats are,” Corben said. “That is troubling, because suddenly, you have these young men who have targets on their back, and not only from strangers and unscrupulous agents and financial advisors, but from their own families, who they have a hard time trusting.”
One of the most egregious examples recounted in Broke revolves around Leon Searcy, a former NFL offensive lineman who played mostly for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“When he would pick up his check from the front office in Jacksonville,” Corben says of Searcy, “he would come out to his car and his family would just be chilling on his car, waiting for him.”
Still, Corben stressed, not all of these stories need to end in sadness. The most successful former pros, he said, use their relatively short sports career as a springboard. One example in Broke, for instance, is former NBA player Jamal Mashburn, now a wealthy businessman who owns a string of chain restaurants and car dealerships, among other ventures.
“He said that to him, basketball was always a means to an end,” Corben says of Mashburn. “The fact is that you’re becoming the CEO of a multi-million-dollar corporation overnight. And you need to be prepared for that. “
Watch DNA’s full interview with Billy Corben above.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.