Athletes and Family Law

By Randall M. Kessler

Why does it seem that they often have issues with family law? From my perspective, as a divorce and family law attorney who handles many athlete cases, I can tell you the reasons seem obvious to me. Take a young man 20 years old, give him lots of money and adoring fans (including many beautiful women), and it is highly likely he will become married and have children or become involved with one or more women and have a child or two or more. This alone is not the problem. But compound this narrative with an almost certain guarantee that his sky-high income will one day come to a sudden (and often sooner than they expected) end, together with his popularity and day to day recognizability and relevance to the everyday person, and life becomes very different and difficult. Many of the same pressures remain after he retires (which is often in his late 20s) including the pressure to act as a role model and to be on his best behavior forever, yet the income has stopped, the accolades have stopped, the praise in the media has stopped while the demands on him for his time and money continue. His family has developed a standard of living, an expectation and he must figure out how to continue that, if possible, while ensuring that the great income he briefly earned will last him and his family the rest of his life. And who is ever equipped to deal with that? Where is the life training for such a situation?

The Player’s Associations (NFLPA, NBPA, etc.) work hard on that but it is a very difficult goal, to teach and instill long term habits and actions to manage a lifetime of costs and expenses on money earned as a teenager or 20-something. Financial advisors and agents similarly try to help, but know that all they can do is advise. And the advice they are giving (save money, don’t spend, don’t buy another expensive car) is often not what the athlete wants to hear. True there are many pro players who figure out early on that they need to save and preserve their assets, but often the pressures and temptations of youth, money and fame prevail.

So here’s a novel thought: maybe the public, the fans who feed the situation, should think about how they can help? While most people likely think that pro athletes have it all and that their paycheck is more than sufficient, what they don’t often have is the perspective of someone who has been in the workforce for years and is not financially secure. And such financial insecurity can be very valuable. It’s what makes the rest of us save and invest. It’s what makes us say no to certain luxury items. It’s what drives us to be prepared for the future. So how do we give them that knowledge? Speeches, lectures and parental advice may help. But truly it often (unfortunately) takes a dramatic event. Like a foreclosure of their home or repossession of their car or incarceration for missed child support payments. And by then the high income has long since stopped.

This is where my initial question — “Why does it always seem that professional athletes often have issues with family law?” — comes into play. This event may hold the possibility of shocking a former player into reality. I wish it didn’t take this. And I also wish the first such event would always be their last such encounter with family law. These issues are of course avoidable. Players can seek a reduction in the amount of their child support obligations when they stop playing. But few do. Instead, many assume that everyone (the child’s mother, the court and opposing counsel) will understand that they just don’t make the money anymore. But many don’t understand that way. Most think he should have saved money and been prepared. And that’s the problem.

So perhaps the true problem is human nature and youth? How many of us, had we been given, or earned millions at the age of 20, would honestly have said “well let’s set up a retirement plan, life and disability insurance and trusts for our future children”? Those concepts, retirement, planning for future generations and insurance against disability are things we learn and decide to do once we are grown up and in the real world for a while. I’d wager that most successful business people didn’t purchase disability insurance, etc. until they were in their 30s, if that soon.

Yes there are agents and advisors and yes most try hard to convince their athlete clients to plan for their future. But youth is youth and human beings are human. So the next time we hear a story of a former athlete who’s hit hard times, let’s take a moment before we condescend and criticize. It is easy to judge, but honestly, how would you or I have handled such wealth at such a young age. Many might say that it would be nice to be in that position, but from what I have seen, I’d prefer a steady, fairly consistent income for life than such early, but often unfortunately temporary, extreme wealth.