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Paradise often lost in sporting afterlife


A good while ago now, I ended up in a restaurant in Chicago late into the night with Gary Halpin – drinking beer and talking shite. The restaurant was called Ditka's, owned by the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Ditka.

This guy kept on catching my eye – not particularly big but no question he was an athlete. I nodded to him and he smiled back at me. The gap-tooth smile did it – even though he was working with the bus boys he wasn't one of them. I asked him did he want a beer. No. Order some beers, put the price of his beer in the tips bowl and he'd sit with us.

Gary hadn't a clue but I got him on my second guess – Leon Spinks, the former world heavyweight champion who had beaten Ali in the 1979 and also won a gold in the '76 Olympics at light-heavyweight – was now working with bus boys in Ditka's and asked us for $10 for a photo with him. Even though the IRFU were only giving us $20 a day on tour, I figured it was worth it. I have the photo somewhere. He was senescent beyond description and barely able to communicate or articulate a sentiment. His life path was entirely predictable, he was in Skid Row's waiting room – the poignancy of the moment though wasn't lost on me.

I watched Broke last week on ESPN Gold, the best channel on TV. It was part of their 30 for 30 series. It is cutting edge and a convincing depiction of the retrogressive nature of sports people – far more interesting than watching sport.

This was a 90-minute essay on a diverse collection of NFL, MLA and NBA athletes whose only connection was the fact that they had all earned enormous amounts of money in their prime and were completely broke a year or two after their careers had ended. Sad to relate that the common denominator was that most of them were black. There is only one thing that is worse than living in the ghetto and that is getting a ticket out of the ghetto and ending up back there again, except this time without any friends.

The stats are astonishing. After five years out of the NFL, 60 per cent of all players are broke. Further on, 78 per cent of all NFL players are either bankrupt or in severe financial difficulties.

One by one the boys came on and told their stories – riding on a depressingly familiar theme – crooked hangers-on, gambling, substance abuse and the oldest one in the book, slow horses and fast

women. The sports industry in America is a hustlers' paradise. Most of these guys had confused turnover with profit and the Internal Revenue Service used to turn up like a groundhog day mother-in-law. The loot in nearly all cases was gone, precipitating bankruptcy and jail sentences

Some of the players tried to prepare for the future and invested in restaurant franchises, car washes, condos and software companies. Sports Illustrated had the figures that only one in 30 of these enterprises worked where these athletes invested money – one in 30. Lucky Dan in Belmont would have been a better bet. Maybe not!

Some of the stories about the excess would require a defibrillator when the tale was being told. Andre Rison, the Buffalo Bills wide receiver, used to take a 40-person entourage with him; one dinner in a New York restaurant cost him $76,000. He bought one woman he barely knew a siberian fox coat for $250,000.

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Women, God bless them all, were a major source of income dilution. In the States they have their web club called balleralert.com, and there are 7,000 women subscribed to the site.

If the hottest quarterback in the league walked into the Lido – the bouncer there who is on a cut sends a text to the website and all the subscribers are alerted that at midnight this guy is in the club.

The birds put on their glad rags, paint the face and get on down to the Lido to try to bag the player. It was too easy. Travis Henry, an average enough running back, managed to father nine children with nine different women and has a child support bill of $17,000 per month. You would have thought that after maybe three or four of these kids he might have taken some precautions.

But he still has a bit to go on Evander Holyfield who has 11 children with nine different women. Travis is broke, so is Evander and the women, well they are broke too. Sixty per cent of NFL players get divorced three years out of the NFL. Unless you married Michael Jordan and divorced him, most of the divorcees picked up zilch. Juanita Jordan got $150 million – Michael gambled his way though a sizeable chunk of the other $150 million.

The saddest story of all was that of Bernie Kosar, a half-decent quarterback with the highly unfashionable Cleveland Browns. Kosar's extended family milked him for millions, mortgage payments here, alimony there, health insurance here and holidays there. I need a car Bernie . . . I need a bar Bernie.

Investments, bailouts, bad debts – Bernie paid for everything until one day he told them to va faire futre. The money tap and all contact were shut off and he didn't want to see them again.

A few months later, Bernie got a letter and an invoice from his put-out mother – she was demanding that he repay her $100,000 for raising him. This was a carefully constructed invoice with a ledger accounting nappies, baby milk, toys etc.

Money, as we are finding out, is the root of all ERC. How far away are we from that kind of madness? Rugby players don't come close to earning the sort of money that American sports stars do but some of the variables are similar, particularly when it comes to the finish line.

It is an open secret that most of the senior players in the Irish squad were burnt badly by the property crash. Apartments in Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool etc have that buried-at-sea feel about them. The nation as a whole, though, has suffered with them on that one. There is not much empathy or sympathy.

Our top-earning players of the last decade have shipped some or most of their 'investments'. Paul O'Connell's travails on the property front have garnered a few headlines, even Drico took a hit on the head with a few quid in Custom House Capital. Ronan O'Gara could easily have played another season – he was in good nick physically and really his game was about the top four inches, but his desire to be able to collect for some Charlie McCreevy money (income tax refund) of circa €500,000 and the prospect of a fresh start would have made the choice of ending his playing career a lot easier.

Quite a few players have invested in retail, pubs and restaurants, some having limited knowledge what their gross margins should be in their respective industries. I wish them all well in their chosen fields in the afterlife.

There will be casualties, and that's before they know what sort of a hit their Union will take on the European debacle.

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