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How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke
PABLO S. TORRE
March 23, 2009
Recession or no recession, many NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players have a penchant for losing most or all of their money. It doesn't matter how much they make. And the ways they blow it are strikingly similar
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March 23, 2009

How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke

Recession or no recession, many NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players have a penchant for losing most or all of their money. It doesn't matter how much they make. And the ways they blow it are strikingly similar

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• Numerous retired MLB players have been similarly ruined, and the current economic crisis is taking a toll on some active players as well. Last month 10 current and former big leaguers—including outfielders Johnny Damon of the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox and pitchers Mike Pelfrey of the Mets and Scott Eyre of the Phillies—discovered that at least some of their money is tied up in the $8 billion fraud allegedly perpetrated by Texas financier Robert Allen Stanford. Pelfrey told the New York Post that 99% of his fortune is frozen; Eyre admitted last month that he was broke, and the team quickly agreed to advance a portion of his $2 million salary.

The Wall Street meltdown is only the latest threat to athletes' financial health. "Athletes have a different set of challenges from, say, entertainers," says money manager Michael Seymour, the founder of Philadelphia-based UNI Private Wealth Strategies. "There's a far shorter peak earnings period [in sports] than in any other profession, and in many cases they lack the time and desire to understand and monitor their investments."

In 2005 Butowsky began inviting sports figures—some well off, some not—to what he calls his financial "boot camps," elementary sessions that go from defining a bond to explaining a diversified portfolio as the equivalent of a balanced meal. There is no charge for the sessions or pressure to sign up with Chapwood, according to Butowsky, who calls this service his "mitzvah to sports." The financial adviser, who helps counsel Thunder forward Kevin Durant pro bono, hopes merely that the sessions will reflect well upon Chapwood. Such goodwill is easy to earn: The bar for radically improving the financial habits of pro athletes, Butowsky acknowledges, is low enough for a toddler to trip over.

"Oh, I've seen it all," says veteran agent Bill Duffy, whose clients include Suns guard Steve Nash and Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. "A pro athlete's money is supposed to outlive his career. Most players never get that."

Why? Where do they go wrong?

I. THE LURE OF THE TANGIBLE

OVER THE YEARS Rocket Ismail's portfolio has contained a passel of dubious inventions and risky investments. After mentioning that he once poured money into a religious movie, the gregarious father of four goes uncharacteristically mum about the details. "I don't really want to go over that agony," he says, smiling thinly.

Ismail played two years in Canada and 10 in the NFL, estimating that he earned $18 million to $20 million in salary alone. He made an abortive NFL comeback attempt in 2006, never getting beyond workouts with the Redskins, and then navigated the reality-TV circuit (Pros vs. Joes, Ty Murray's Celebrity Bull Riding Challenge). Today he does a Cowboys postgame show on Fox Sports Net. As cautionary tales go, Ismail's could've been worse: He has his Notre Dame degree, and he never filed for bankruptcy, had legal trouble or got divorced. Yet he lost several million dollars, he admits, through "total ignorance."

It began in the winter of 1991 when he sank $300,000 into the Rock N' Roll Café, a theme restaurant in New England designed to ride the wave of the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood franchises. One of his advisers pitched the idea as "fail-proof, with no downsides," Ismail recalls. He never recouped his money and has no idea what became of the restaurant.

Lesson learned? If only. After that Ismail squandered a fortune funding not only that inspirational movie but also the music label COZ Records ("The guy was a real good talker," says Rocket); a cosmetics procedure whereby oxygen was absorbed into the skin ("We were not prepared for the sharks in the beauty industry"); a plan to create nationwide phone-card dispensers ("When I was in college, phone cards were a big deal"); and, recently, three shops dubbed It's in the Name, where tourists could buy framed calligraphy of names or proverbs of their choice ("The main store opened up in New Orleans, but doggone Hurricane Katrina came two months later"). The shops no longer exist.

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