Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
Sports documentaries can often dazzle you with their statistics, but the first numbers to pop onscreen in Billy Corben's Broke are astonishing: according to Sports Illustrated, 78 percent of all NFL players are broke within three years of their retirement. The NBA's numbers are barely better: 60 percent of all pro basketball players are out of money within five years of stepping off the court. It's hard to jibe these numbers with those that follow, in a quick montage of former athletes divulging the amounts of their contracts and bonuses. The story is the same: "And then I went on a splurge."
Corben's film (created for ESPN Films, which aired his excellent 30 for 30 contribution The U) takes a good, close look at this bewildering phenomenon--at what causes it, both on a micro and macro level, and how it perpetuates. The revenue of professional sports exploded in the 1980s and 1990s, periods (for the most part) of prosperity, and as those revenues increased, so did the salaries; the average compensation for baseball players in the 1970s, unbelievably enough, was around $20K per year. No more--athletes are paid in the millions, the tens of millions, even the hundreds of millions, and Corben is first of all interested in the kind of jarring shift that can create in the life of a young men who often come from extreme poverty. Getting that much money that quickly can cause whiplash, particularly when you don't understand so much about having (and keeping) it.
Cribs, rap videos, and competitiveness with other players causes showboating; gambling, taxes, and agent fees can take a bite; friends, family, and friends-of-friends of family all come out of the woodwork looking for help, for a loan, for an investment in a business opportunity that can't miss. But it can all dry up in a flash--one serious injury can lead to surgeries, swollen health care costs, expensive medications (and addictions to them), and maybe the end of a career. And if an athlete hasn't planned wisely, they make it back into the sports page, this time for a bankruptcy.
Corben tells this story in his typical flashy style; the picture moves fast, finding a slick aesthetic to match the seductiveness of the lives being described. It is comprised almost entirely of talking heads--mostly former players, but also sports financial advisors, journalists, and business analysts--but doesn't feel dry or chatty. Editor David Cypkin dips from one sound byte to another like a DJ grabbing samples, using repetition of similar phrases and ideas to drive home the common themes, while the non-stop score provides a matching beat. It's not a style that works for all documentaries, but it works for Corben's.
Walking through the movements of Broke can make it sound like the filmmaker is making excuses, and it's less a case of that than allowing the subjects to make their excuses (a subtle but important difference). That said, there is a sense that some responsibility is being avoided--at risk of putting too fine a point on it, one theory that never really gest floated is that, well, maybe some of these guys aren't too bright. And maybe part of the reason for that is the frequently low quality of their college educations; too many of them are just there to play ball, and are allowed to slide through the actual course work, when a bit of financial planning and comprehension might do some real good, and prevent the sort of stories we hear here.
It's easy to laugh and jeer at the golden gods who fall from the heavens in an avalanche of child support orders and tax indictments; we've all done it. It's more interesting to look at how that happens, and why. Broke may miss a couple of important points, but it creates far more sympathy for these fallen millionaires than I could have imagined, and is a damned slick piece of non-fiction filmmaking besides.
Note: "Broke" is showing at Tribeca as a work-in-progress, and a pre-screening message stressed that the editing was not yet complete. I frankly wouldn't have known were it not for that disclaimer, but be aware that it may air on ESPN in a different form than the one described in this review.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.