Warren Sapp, Allen Iverson, and the Tragedy of the Riches-to-Rags Athlete

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How should fans feel when sports stars go broke, cheat on their wives, or otherwise embarrass themselves?

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the rash of recent athlete embarrassments.


Hey, guys,

Warren Sapp is broke. TMZ first reported on court documents filed in Fort Lauderdale showing the former NFL star and (for the moment) TV analyst owes more than $6.7 million. Sapp is not alone, of course. Allen Iverson can't pay back a $850,000 jewelry debt. Terrell Owens told GQ earlier this year that he's friendless and broke, unable to pay the child support he owes. According to a in-depth 2009 Sports Illustrated story, 78 percent of former NFL players are in serious financial trouble within two years of retirement. The NBA numbers are much the same.

The first gut reaction is to feel bad or these guys. Something deep in the fan's heart is offended by the thought of a broke former star, probably because being mega-rich is a big part of the dream of being a pro athlete—the fantasy that sacrificing youth and health to the game can win a big enough prize to sustain you for a lifetime. Besides, most of the athletes who blow their vast fortunes come from terribly impoverished backgrounds. They have no experience handling money, and so make incredibly easy prey for unscrupulous friends or bad financial advice.

But I don't feel sorry for Sapp, or most of the other guys who go broke. A bad childhood isn't enough to explain why Sapp's assets include a lion-skin rug and an Imedla Marcos-like 240 pairs of Air Jordans. More importantly, a bad childhood might explain, but can never excuse, Sapp's failure to care for his six children, two by a now-former wife.

And let's keep in mind, none of these guys are going to be begging for change on the street. The former Buc and Raider listed his average monthly income as $115,881. That includes, by the way, a $48,000 celebrity appearance fee. Yes, the man will make $48,000 in a few hours, literally, just for showing up. Poor baby.

How about fellas? Do you feel bad for guys who blow $50 mil? Or, like me, do you gleefully revel in the delicious schadenfreude of seeing the financial face-plants?

–Hampton

Hampton,

Show me a guy who is sorry for Sapp, Iverson, and all the other broke athletes out there, and I'll say: "Nice to meet you, Mitt!" Seriously, though, there's not much of a debate to be had on whether we should feel bad for athletes who make ludicrous sums of money (as opposed to, say, a teacher or any public employee) and then squander their riches through a combination of naivete and idiocy. I'll let Denny Green speak for me here.



But let's not contain our head-shaking to the fiscally irresponsible, Hampton. What of Bobby Petrino, a real-life weasel coach (copyright Gregg Easterbrook) who was fired by Arkansas on Wednesday after allegedly hiring his mistress as an athletic department staffer and lying to the university about it? Petrino, who bolted for Arkansas midway through his first season as coach of the Atlanta Falcons and famously informed the players with a farewell note left in their lockers, deserves every bit of scorn we can heap on him. Hopefully, no college or pro team will call his number again.

Then there's Ozzie Guillen, perhaps the only sports figure currently in the public hot seat whom I feel sorry for. Guillen, coach of the Miami Marlins (who just opened a new stadium in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami) said in a Time magazine interview earlier this year: "I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that son of a bitch is still there."

Yes, Guillen—who was suspended five games by the team—said literally the worst thing he could say as manager of a franchise desperate for support from local Cuban-American community. And what he said was undeniably reprehensible—far too many lives have been ruined (and taken) by Castro to ever say a kind word about the man. That said, Ozzie was more than likely just "being Ozzie", popping off about a subject he knows nothing about it because it's all part of his "colorful" personality.

Perhaps I'm naive to think that Guillen didn't understand the ramifications of his little half-joke while he was saying it. But he presses my sympathy bone more than Petrino or Sapp, the latest version of Latrell "$8 million a year isn't enough to feed my family" Sprewell.

What of it, Patrick? Where do your sympathies (or condemnations) lie?

–Jake

Jake,

I'm cynical by nature, and hardly a patient sufferer of fools. Still, that doesn't mean I lack empathy. In the boneheaded cases of Sapp, Petrino and Guillen, it's easy to feel outraged. Easier still to chuckle. Almost impossible to not sit in blithe judgement, hepped up on schadenfreude and the sheer shameless giddy joy of good ol' fashioned human rubbernecking. This is pretty much why reality television exists, and great wide swaths of the Internet, too. Plus Taiwanese news animation. Deep down in our petty, collective heart of hearts, we are all Nelson from The Simpsons, sneering and pointing a finger.

Ha ha.

And yet: There's something very familiar about the guys we're laughing at, something very old about their stories. Squandered riches. Cheatin' hearts. Foot-in-mouth disease. The classic stuff of self-destruction—not to mention country music—common to athletes and coaches and presidents alike. Shakespeare would size up the likes of Sapp in seconds; ancient Greek playwrights wouldn't find Petrino's saga the least bit surprising (well, maybe except for all the texting. And his inexplicable failure to use a motorcycle sidecar). These men are buffoons, sure—but hardly different from the rest of us, save the outlandish degree of their buffoonery. After all, who hasn't wasted money in moronic fashion? Screwed up royally in romance? Lied in a futile effort to stave off embarrassment? Held an unpopular opinion, and lacked the good sense to keep quiet about it?

(Hint: even Jesus was guilty of the last one).

I'm not saying that when society looks in the mirror, it sees Petrino's absurd, trial-lawyer-catnip neck brace looking back. I'm not saying that Sapp's alleged domestic violence is commonplace, or that Guillen's lack of tact is par for the course anywhere outside anonymous Internet comments and Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns. I am saying that their sins are a little more familiar than most of us would like to admit, and that in discussing and judging and mocking all three men—in doing the same with a seemingly endless series of high-profile scandals in sports and beyond—we're not just inoculating ourselves from their mistakes. We're offering up a silent prayer to the gods, in this case Deadspin and TMZ: There but for the grace of not being a celebrity go I.

So yeah: I can laugh at idiocy, and still feel sorry for its purveyors. Well, except when it comes to just-fired Isiah Thomas. That guy is hopeless.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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