More Than Money
Issue #14

Young and Wealthy

Table of Contents

“The Rookie Program:”

For ten years now, I have worked with young professional athletes, training them to take a close look at both the enormous potential and the genuine dangers of their highly paid career choice. In my work with the National Basketball Association, I counsel young men aged 18-23; for Major League Baseball, ages range up to 27. In basketball the average starting salary is $220,000, and the average career length is five years. Roughly ninety percent of the athletes I work with come from working-class backgrounds.

In what's called "The Rookie Program," sports psychologists are on hand as I lead my acting troupe through a series of modeling exercises dramatizing stressful situations in which athletes may find themselves. For five secluded days in a Florida hotel, we lead groups of 30-50 players through a series of role-playing scenarios and discuss the issues raised in each role-play (i.e., money, sex, violence, and drugs).

Much of my work amounts to crisis prevention. The external and internal threats of seduction, substance abuse, fraud, and extortion are very real. One common ploy is the attractive woman waiting for a player after a game who claims her friends have left her behind and asks the player for a ride into town. Ten minutes into the ride she demands $50,000 not to claim she was raped by him. Often we will bring respected veteran players into the workshop to warn new players about such scams and suggest dignified ways of avoiding them.

In the case of someone making the player a suspicious business offer, we suggest the athlete give him the number of his financial manager to have the deal checked out before signing anything. To a well-educated audience, this kind of solution may seem obvious, but in the sports world, rookies often have not finished adolescence, never mind college. Add to this a class-based ignorance about handling large amounts of money, tremendous expectations by even the most well-meaning friends, and you have a recipe for trouble.

I also tell them that among the requests for money and business proposals they will receive, many will be in good faith from worthy parties. More troubling are requests and proposals from people--sometimes close friends and family--that seem suspicious for one reason or another. Too often these requests don't originate from those close to the player at all, but from people who are trying to use the player's friends or family to get at his money.

If we teach anything directly, it is responsibility. First, to oneself. With such brief careers, one had better start thinking about the future immediately. Former World Series champions living in poverty attest to the importance of shepherding one's earnings carefully. The League keeps a list of recommended investment advisors from which to draw.

Second, without getting moralistic, we try to point out the athlete's responsibility to society. As a professional athlete, one has remarkable powers of access. Choose a boy's club, choose AIDS research, choose neighborhood renewal--no one is going to say "no" to the visibility a pro athlete can bring to a non-profit organization! These connections can also lay the groundwork for life after one's playing days are over.

I am excited that professional sports is making progress in supporting athletes, and that the tragic excesses of the 1980s are on the decline. Rookie Programs are growing by leaps and bounds. As a man of color, I'm also convinced of the importance of my role in getting this message to the athletes, nearly three-quarters of whom are black or hispanic. I'm trying to teach these guys how to develop their self-esteem and make good decisions so they can make the most of their opportunities. If I succeed, they can go out and be role models to a lot of Little League kids who really need them. There may have been a time when a professional athlete could try to shirk his role as a model for our youth, but I think that's over now.

--Zachary Minor, a training consultant to the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball., is interviewed here by film maker Aaron Edison.

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