As Antonio Brown files for bankruptcy, is it fair to always blame ex-athletes for losing their millions?

BY Nii Ntreh June 12, 2024 5:48 PM EDT
Former NFL star Antonio Brown has filed for bankruptcy, joining a long list of former athletes in that vein.

In a 12-year career that saw stints with four NFL teams, one of which won him a Super Bowl ring, 35-year-old former wide receiver Antonio Brown amassed more than $80 million in wealth, according to conservative estimates. But in the middle of May, Brown told federal authorities that he is bankrupt, claiming he now owns assets less than $50,000.

According to the details of the case, Brown is currently not in a position to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debts, some $1.2 million in judgment debt that he owes to a man he allegedly assaulted, among others.

It is yet the case of another multimillionaire athlete whose enormous earnings have vanished into thin air despite seeing more money than most people would ever come close to. Mike Tyson, Dorothy Hamill and Allen Iverson have walked this path. And if you are a world soccer fan, you may know the infamous stories of former England national team forward Paul Gascoigne and Brazilian sharpshooter Adriano. These are all very familiar stories and even with statistical context, the situation appears dire. According to a 2022 report by financial advisers NKSFB, nearly 80% of professional US athletes file for bankruptcy within the first three years of retirement. Granted that an overwhelming amount of athletes do not take home millions, it is still confounding to see people who mastered physical discipline for their sporting years never transfer that discipline to their fiscal setting.

Discipline bears the weight of a myriad of opinions shared on this matter. When he took his turn at Shannon Sharpe’s popular Club Shay Shay podcast, NBA legend Charles Barkley revealed that at the beginning of his career, he lacked the discipline to make better calls with the money that came his way.

“I first was an idiot when I got my money,” Barkley said. It took the advice of Barkely’s mentor, the former NBA star Julius Irving, for Barkley to realize he did not need to give in to the temptation of fame and glamor.

“[Irving] said, ‘Chuck, this money got to last you for the rest of your life. Everybody knows who you are. You pull up in a Kia, they know that’s Charles Barkley. You pull up in a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls Royce, that’s Charles Barkley,’” Barkley recollected.

Irving added, Barkley said: “The problem is — it’s not the fact that you can’t afford that car — it’s the fact that the $300,000 you spent on that Bentley, if you bought a car for $70,000, $80,000, you would have had $200,000 more in the bank and it would have been growing and growing.’”

The point about discipline is the most preferred explanation because it simplifies the cause and effect. You could not keep your money and that is why you lost it. The locus of action is the individual and there is not much we can say further. The most essential thing an adult can do for themselves is to ensure their continued thriving, if not surviving. This basic instinct requires knowledge acquisition, planning, risk-taking, and hedging one’s bets. Planning alone involves forward-looking and thus, it is well within reason to expect adult athletes to handle their business with foresight and tact. These are things one does for one’s self.

And if you cannot do these things with your money, outsource the responsibility to someone, for a fee.

However, very few analyses give room to the fact that profligacy and recklessness may have been bestowed on individuals because of the social conditions of their upbringing. This is not to deny any agency to the individual but rather to point out that a regime of responsibility and accountability often means individuals grow up with better work ethic and resource management abilities. Having a good sense of money is most likely a skill people picked because of social and environmental factors.

What if the Antonio Browns of this world were always headed down this way because they were not acculturated to the skills that could help them thrive? It is an indubitable fact that a person is a product of their social environment. Nevertheless, even though many people would ordinarily buy the argument that a person is a product of socialization, we seem to discard that particular understanding in many situations. Perhaps, we do not want to create a world where no one takes blame or reward because whatever phase of their life we are witnessing could be attributed to their socialization.

However, there is an insurmountable degree of evidence about backgrounds that will not just go away. In 2013, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) published a paper that claimed that the most effective predictor of entrepreneurial success is to be “male, white, better-educated, and more likely to come from high-earning, two-parent families.”

In my interpretation, men are more likely to receive support when they wish to take on the world. Women are advised to safeguard themselves from the unforgiving competitiveness of business. Additionally, according to the authors, wealth affords people the opportunity to fail and pick themselves up again, while a two-parent home delivers warmth, discipline and accountability. The usefulness of being well-educated is self-evident while whiteness in America is usually the property that possesses all of the above.

Mike Tyson fits the bill of someone who did not check the boxes listed here. The paper’s evidence calls on many scenarios in American industries where the hypothesis was proven.

And what about behavior genetics? Brown himself has repeatedly attributed his erratic behaviors to having been diagnosed with CTE, a neurodegenerative disease where a sufferer gradually loses the functions of his neurons. Whether his diagnosis is true or not, a person’s biology can predispose them to social failures others may never suffer.

But it is not lost on this writer that couching the issue of athletes’ bankruptcy as a problem for Black society is a signal towards addressing structural inadequacies that have debilitating effects on Black people.

Humble Lukanga, a wealth manager who manages the monies of many Black clients in sports and entertainment, told The Washington Post that sometimes, losing it all after a Black athlete has raked in millions is a result of the “pressure that comes with being the African-American success story.”

“You are some community’s pride and joy. And that community has protected you. That community has given you free haircuts when you couldn’t afford it. That community has sponsored your football teams, your basketball team,” Lukanga explained. Sometimes, you lose it all because there is only so much you can give to a community or family that is systemically deprived.

To reiterate, this is not to hold brief for Brown, Tyson, or any incoming bankrupt ex-athlete. Personal responsibility is at the heart of liberal democracy and extremely important to maintaining a healthy community. But it can be a simplistic response to gaping holes in our collective existence. If popular appraisals continue to dismiss the component of environmental inadequacies that leave people with terrible options and choices, we will only continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes.