Skip to main content

How We Set Up Our Professional Athletes to Fail

For every Michael Jordan, there's at least one Keon Clark. Or an Allen Iverson. Or a Junior Seau. The machinery of professional sports churns through its athletes and spits them out on the other side.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Keon Clark. (Photo: Associated Press)

Keon Clark. (Photo: Associated Press)

Keon Clark played in the NBA for six years, which is about the average length of a career in professional sports. He wasn’t forced out of the game by injury or the churn of time and the erosion of his skills. He left at 28 years old, still talented and capable enough to play, but unable to make it past halftime without a drink.

He had entered the NBA in a draft class that included Vince Carter, arguably the greatest dunker of all time, but it was Clark and his inherent athleticism that had captured the interest of the NBA.

“He has immense athletic ability, maybe more than any other player in the draft," one general manager told Sports Illustrated. “He’s got a chance to be a special player in this league,” said another. "Keon's got a lot of talent and a lot of potential," added one of his coaches, "but I don't think he understands how good he can be."

He was a tangle of long, skinny limbs in a near seven-foot frame, gifted with natural leaping ability. His game sprung from that athleticism, his angular body bounding up and down the court, his limber arms snatching rebounds from high in the air.

In his best moments, he could change the pace of a game with a dunk, a rebound, or a blocked shot, but more often he seemed like he was playing beyond his means, at a pace he couldn’t sustain, and that at any moment it could all become unhinged. When it did, the support stopped and so did the talk of his potential.

Clark had earned an estimated $15 million in NBA salary when he left basketball. His career had taken him to four different cities, but he retired in his hometown of Danville, Illinois, a city of around 35,000 people a couple of hours south of Chicago. Once he was home, Clark—who later said he never played a sober game in his career—kept drinking.

He ran into trouble often. In a 2007 profile, the Toronto Star notes that one local newspaper in Danville began tagging his infractions under the headline “Keon Watch.”

"The boy is just self-destructing in public, and it's painful," Frank Young, a state's attorney in Danville, told the Star. "You hate to see a young man destroy himself after he's worked so hard and accomplished so much.... You're just going, 'Wake up.'"

On December 4, 2013, at the Vermilion County Courthouse, Clark accepted a plea agreement on weapons and driving under the influence charges, the culmination of years of reckless behavior. He told the court of his past; of struggling with depression and anxiety and his battles with alcoholism—an addiction that took hold of his life in high school and worsened with every reassurance that he had reached the pinnacle—not just of sports, but of society. He was in a position of emulation, being paid millions to play a game. How could he be anything but happy?

"People think money will make your life better, money didn't dissolve my problems. It increased them,” Clark told the News-Gazette while he was in custody awaiting his trial. “I was already on a destructive path. What happened was people looked at me, and they saw my persona. What they put on me was not me. You can’t live up to something you’re not. Nobody cares about your problems. Everybody diminished my problems, including myself.”

There was a small contingent of family and friends gathered in the courthouse. People that had been around Clark as he grew up, people that had watched him dominate the local basketball circuit before he was whisked away on a collegiate career that took him to four different schools.

"Just like a lottery winner, as an athlete, you go from no money to an amount that seems unlimited very quickly. When you look at that formula, that’s not just an athlete formula, that’s a formula for disaster in every walk of life, when all of a sudden someone enters a social class and a stratosphere they were unprepared for.”

They watched as he was selected with the 13th overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, just two spots below Paul Pierce and three spots below Dirk Nowitzki—NBA champions now in the last act of their Hall of Fame careers. They watched as Clark, five months sober from his time in custody, was sentenced to eight years in prison, and they watched as he lowered his head, his cheeks stained with tears, and walked out of the courthouse shackled to another prisoner. His steps, once so powerful and explosive, now reduced to a shuffle.

CLARK'S STORY, THE NARRATIVE of the fallen athlete, is a story we hear often. It’s a shared symptom of celebrity culture, for athletes, entertainers, and artists—their generally oversized and bombastic worlds crashing up against each other, fed by corporate demand and society's endless consumption.

In 2009, Pablo Torre wrote in Sports Illustrated that 78 percent of former NFL players were bankrupt or under financial stress within two years of retirement and that 60 percent of former NBA players were broke within five years of retirement.

ESPN later attempted to captured that problem in their 30 for 30 documentary Broke, attributing fiscal irresponsibility to the psychology of athletes, that their competitive nature nurtured a proclivity for obsessive spending and a need to out-do their peers. The athletes shared stories tied together by the inflated perception of their wealth, how that perception often carried them beyond their means and brought with it a lifetime of debt, if not something worse.

“Athletes are prone to the same culture as everyone else, and society today places a huge emphasis on material items,” says Gary Williams, the president of Williams Asset Management in Columbia, Maryland, and an advisor for several NFL clients. “It’s the peer pressure of keeping up with the Joneses, but in this case the Joneses are other wealthy, young people.”

An entry level NFL salary is around $400,000, a large sum of money to be sure, but after taxes, agents, and representation, that amount is cut in half—and there’s still an image to uphold and a perception to satisfy. In many cases, there are still friends and family to support, there are still debts to pay, there are still (often bad) business deals to be had, there are still those who feel some level of entitlement to the athletes earnings.

Unlike most careers where you accumulate a salary year after year for several decades, athletes’ careers are likely to end within that initial decade. (A study by a University of Colorado-Boulder research team found that the average career of a professional baseball player, a sport with significantly less injury risk than football or hockey, lasts five and a half years.) Their first paycheck is often the largest sum of money they’ve ever received, and it usually arrives without proper planning for the decades to follow.

“Millionaires in general are the most likely demographic to go broke,” says Andy Billings, a professor in the University of Alabama’s Sports Communication Program and the Ronald Reagan Endowed Chair of Broadcasting. “We can't believe it when a lottery winner runs out of money and goes bankrupt. That seems unfathomable. Everyone sits around and says ‘Well, that would never happen to me,’ and yet the statistics show that the winner doesn't get any smarter with that sum of money. Just like a lottery winner, as an athlete, you go from no money to an amount that seems unlimited very quickly. When you look at that formula, that’s not just an athlete formula, that’s a formula for disaster in every walk of life, when all of a sudden someone enters a social class and a stratosphere they were unprepared for.”

Such was the case for Allen Iverson, who earned more than $150 million in salary alone over his NBA career. Now, four years removed from the game, he’s broke. His story could still have a different ending, though. When he turns 55, he will receive $30 million, money that was locked into a trust fund earlier in his career.

“We need to come up with more creative ways to do things like that,” Billings says. “I think if Iverson were to receive a modest amount of that money every year for the rest of his life that would ensure some level of existence that would not put players in as much of a dire strait as they often are.”

In 2011, Carson Palmer, then a quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals, demanded to be traded. He was adamant, going as far to threaten retirement if his request was not granted. “I have $80 million in the bank,” he said at the time. “I don’t have to play football for money. I’ll play it for the love of the game but that would have to be elsewhere.”

For many, this was a surprise. It was hard to believe that an athlete could have made smart, prudent financial decisions, but Palmer, the son of a successful financial planner, had the resources to do so. When he was in seventh grade, his father placed him in private quarterback lessons. By the time he reached high school, his father, then working on the other side of the country, would fly home each week to watch his games. He was born into wealth and received proper training on how to handle it.

Iverson’s story was different. He wasn’t born into privilege, or able to elude systemic racism and poverty. He was born to a single 15-year-old mother in Hampton, Virginia. He was a two-sport star, in basketball and football, but he ran into problems away from the structure of sports and eventually spent four months in prison before finishing high school.

It wasn’t enough to stop legendary basketball coach John Thompson from offering Iverson a full scholarship to join the Georgetown Hoyas. Iverson flourished at Georgetown, leading the Hoyas deep into the NCAA tournament, while Thompson played the role of both mentor and coach. After two years at Georgetown, Iverson went on to become the number-one pick in the 1996 NBA draft. Seventeen years, 11 All-Star games, and one MVP award later, most of his money is gone.

"How they produced, consumed, and disposed the hero. That bothered a lot of people and I think, for some of them, it made them question what they were supporting."

“We're in the habit of having athletes spend the first quarter or third of their lives making stories and the rest of their lives telling those stories,” Billings says. “There’s a danger in front loading everything.”

The difference between Iverson and Palmer, a difference of social mobility, also offers insight into how athletes from different backgrounds are packaged and presented to the fans. Iverson’s story was the perfect fit for companies who wished to piggyback his urban appeal and turn it into profits. They wanted Iverson’s authenticity, but they also wanted him to fit within their boundaries.

“The corporation wants the edgy, street wise, urban, interesting, different black man but it also wants him to become well behaved in terms of its own conventions,” says Toby Miller, chairperson of the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California. “The idea that you could simply train people in how to behave leaves out this essential gap and contradiction between norms of conduct and the norms of what is promotable and what will sell things. It’s not just about race, if you look at the way in which royal families around the world are picked out as examples of how to behave—often they fall flat on their faces. The kind of scrutiny given to these people is greater than ever before. In sports it’s around the clock and it starts very, very young with mostly men, who are suddenly thrust into enormous fame and power.”

The ultimate, perfectly marketed athlete was Michael Jordan. His athleticism, showmanship, and competitiveness could be wrapped neatly in Nike attire and then projected into nearly every corner of society. He was a beneficiary of time and place, arriving in the NBA as its growth exploded on the heels of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Jordan set a precedent for what a marketing campaign can accomplish. He became not only a global athlete but a global commodity.

But not every athlete is Michael Jordan. There are very few, in fact, that have received the same sort of insular protection to maintain an image. Jordan was such a gifted athlete, so captivating in his talent that it was easy to smooth over his personal flaws. For most, Jordan’s iconic status is unattainable—if they can’t sell shoes, hamburgers, and an identity, and do it at a frenzied pace, they are left, more or less, to navigate the passages of their careers, of fandom and expectations, on their own. It’s from this point that many learn when viewed under a microscope our fallibilities become inescapably clear.

“It’s an impossible standard,” says Bryan Denham, who holds the Campbell Professorship in Sports Communication at Clemson University. “Leagues don't want to deal with any deviant behavior, they'd rather convince themselves it doesn't exist. You have to remember athletes are very much commodities at the pro level and if they get in too much trouble the leagues will set them aside and focus on other athletes. The leagues don't have any vested interest in these guys as people—they are interested in what they produce on the field.”

The field then is not only an exhibition of sport, but a sales floor—and to change that means changing our habits of consumption.

“Somehow or another we have to get it across to corporations that we don't buy all this crap,” Miller says. “Michael Jordan was a brilliant basketball player but that doesn't mean the shoes designed and named after him are any good and it doesn't mean he’s a good person. It just means he was very successful at one very specific set of skills.”

WE ARE ONLY BEGINNING to understand the physical and mental toll of violent sports, of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain.

The disease first entered sports consciousness in 2006, when it was diagnosed in the brain of the former Eagles defensive back Andre Waters after his suicide. Since then researchers at Boston University have found CTE in 33 of the 34 brains of former N.F.L. players they have examined.

“In a perfect world, athletes would have a better idea of what they are getting into,” adds Scott Tinley, a professor at California State University. “Often by the time they have retired, they are undersocialized and undereducated. When you tell a 23-year-old, ‘We’re going to pay you millions of dollars a year if you do this,’ they say ‘Absolutely.’ But if you speak to a 42-year-old who can’t get out of bed because his knees are shot and he has early onset dementia, would he have made the same choice? Likely not.”

In 2012, Junior Seau, a former football player, was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was just two years removed from his NFL career. In his kitchen, he left the lyrics of a song scribbled on a piece of paper that described a man’s descent into self-hatred. An autopsy later revealed CTE.

In January 2013, the Seau family sued the league, helmet maker Riddell, and various others over the brain injuries he suffered in his career.

“When people saw what happened with Junior Seau, and they began to see some of the scientific data come out, I think perhaps a more emphatic fan considered how they might be part of that,” Tinley says. “How they produced, consumed, and disposed the hero. That bothered a lot of people and I think, for some of them, it made them question what they were supporting.”

KEON CLARK'S BEST STATISTICAL season came in 2001, as a member of the Toronto Raptors. He played alongside Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, two young, preternatural athletes, still just knocking on the door of stardom. They played an exciting brand of basketball, with endless athleticism. That team, and Carter in particular, inspired an entire generation of basketball-playing Canadians, some of whom are now reaching the NBA ranks.

Clark didn’t play as many minutes as Carter or McGrady, he didn’t take as many shots, or show up on as many highlight reels, but he was there, as much as he ever was, a member of the best team in franchise history.

The next year, his last with the team, Clark solidified his place in Raptor’s fandom.

In a match-up against the Dallas Mavericks, while streaking toward the basket, he caught a pass in the middle of the paint as the Mavericks 7’6’’ center, Shawn Bradley, waited at the rim.

Clark, without hesitation, leapt into the air, cradling the ball in his left hand, his arm fully extended behind him, and threw the ball into the basket. It was as if Bradley, a gargantuan human by any measure, was never even there.

It’s a moment that most Raptors fans still discuss when the occasion calls for it. It’s a moment that lives alongside the best Carter ever showed us and a moment that embodies the Keon Clark that many choose to remember—an unfettered giant, playing explosive, unrestrained basketball.

When he landed, his teammates howled and hugged each other, and those who didn’t stood still, jaws agape.

Clark ran back down the court, his strides a little longer, a little bouncier, a toothy grin filling his face. Two years later, he was out of the league.

After he was sentenced, Clark addressed the court, turning to face his mother and other members of the Carter Metropolitan Community Church in Danville, who had gathered in support. “It could have been a lot worse,” he told them. “It's going to be a lot better.”