ESPN's '30 for 30' returns with how athletes go 'Broke'

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Andre Rison in 2006. (Photo by Kirby Lee/Getty Images)

How do highly paid pro athletes run through all those millions and end up broke -- behind on their mortgages, jailed for tax evasion, even homeless? ESPN's "30 for 30" returns with another fascinating installment, "Broke," which looks at the embattled relationship between players and their finances.

Follow the money

"Broke" picks up where a recent "Sports Illustrated" piece on athletes' fiscal mishaps left off, and the statistics aren't any less striking since Pablo Torre's article went to press almost four years ago: Within five years of retiring, approximately 60% of former NBA players have gone broke. The numbers are even worse for NFL players, many of whom don't play long enough to qualify for the league's pension and must also deal with postcareer medical issues -- 78% of former NFLers file for bankruptcy or suffer "financial distress" because of broken marriages, underemployment, or both.

Director Billy Corben -- who helmed an earlier "30 for 30" installment, "The U," about the 1980s Miami Hurricanes football program -- notes that it was tough to get athletes to talk to him about these issues. Too proud or too ashamed, many declined to participate. But Corben got fantastic interviews from the athletes who did agree to interviews; from big names (infamous NFL wide receiver Andre "Bad Moon" Rison) to smaller fry (infielder Homer Bush), the players are by turns cynical, rueful, frustrated, and hilarious about the money they've wasted and the mistakes they've made.

Viewers may not expect to feel sympathy for men who made hundreds of millions and now find themselves busted, but that's what happens. One athlete gently mocks himself for buying a gigantic fur coat that he only wore three times. Linebacker Keith McCants, weighed down with regret, admits that his lawyer stole a half-million-dollar tax payment. In a segment about the bad business deals former pros get themselves into, Corben includes a shot of a commercial for Lenny Dykstra's car-wash chain. Dykstra, who was once a model for postathletics success, is currently doing three years in a California prison for bankruptcy fraud and money laundering, and in a voice-over, Andre Rison grumbles, "Car washes. For some reason, professional athletes got this fad with car washes."

The sports series for people who hate sports

Even non-sports fans will get something from "Broke," which is packed with info. The documentary runs down all the reasons these players find themselves with empty pockets when they retire: bad planning, metastasizing entourages, and unethical advisers, to name a few. It's the details that captivate, like the number of championship rings you'll find on eBay, for instance -- or the existence of a site called BallerAlert.com, which tips aspiring "baby mamas" to the presence of high-rolling athletes in the clubs. Bernie Kosar says it's "friggin' exhausting" to hear half-baked pitches from friends and cousins, then shares an anecdote that makes it clear he's still trying to please Dad. Sports-business analyst Darren Rovell answers the question on everyone's mind -- Why don't the leagues provide training programs to help highly paid young athletes to think long-term? -- by saying that such a program does exist, but it's so dull that players fall asleep during the first session and never return.

"30 for 30" is the brainchild of sports/pop-culture maven Bill "the Sports Guy" Simmons, and was initially pegged to the network's 30th anniversary as a series of documentaries that would explore new angles and smaller stories. Not all the entries are strong, but they're never dull. It's the TV version of a "long read," and it's great that ESPN brought it back.

Again, "30 for 30" isn't just for sports fans. It's straight-ahead solid filmmaking you can enjoy without knowing a thing about the sport in question, and most entries come in at only an hour long. You can find the original set on Netflix ("June 17, 1994" and "The Best That Never Was" are good starting points), and it's worth setting a season pass for the new episodes, which will cover the scandal surrounding the 100-meter men's final at the 1988 Olympic Games ("9.79*," airing October 9); the violent clashes at the University of Mississippi in 1962 ("Ghosts of Ole Miss," airing October 30); and the misunderstood Bo Jackson ("You Don't Know Bo," airing December 8).

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