Film Producer Alfred Spellman Talks ESPN Doc on ‘Broke’ Athletes

Documentary highlights the challenges of fame and fortune in sports

Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins is notably frugal, driving a 1991 Mazda. (Image: File)

Alfred Morris from the Redskins is still driving a 1991 Mazda, so there may be hope.

Right! I saw that on SportsCenter the other day, it’s like a $1,500 coupe or something that he drives. He’s got his shit together. I mean, really at the end of the day if you’re only going to make money for so long … that’s the other thing, too: If you play in the NFL you’re contract’s not guaranteed so if you get hurt, that’s it. Not only do you get hurt, but if you get hurt bad your medical bills start to add up later on in life. The average NFL career is shorter than team sports … so for Morris that’s probably the wisest decision that he could make.

People on the internet fall on a couple of different sides with the Morris story, but don’t you have to look at how much money he’s actually making before you pass judgment?

We really wanted to make an effort on that point and it’s one that we really wanted to bring into Broke.  Because these days when you hear of these astronomical salaries the conversation is all about bankers, people like Romney with a lot of private equity who don’t pay a lot of taxes — well, these athletes are in the highest tax bracket there is. Not only are they paying 35 percent in taxes to the federal government, then they’re paying their agents and even playing taxes in every state that they play in. If you’ve got a game in New York you’re paying New York state income tax. By the time these guys get done, the question becomes, What’s a million dollars? Is it $450,000? A million dollars isn’t even a million dollars. It’s not a question of how much they’re making but how much of it are they taking home? And it’s not as much as people who are heading up banks and people in private equity guys who are paying very little in taxes.

Did you figure out over the course of making this film why people are so intrigued by this topic?

We talk about it around the office as our Great Recession doc. For the first time in any of our lifetimes, unless you’re old enough to have experienced the Great Depression, this is the first time that any of us has seen widespread financial devastation running through all classes of people. This is not just a recession where the poor people are worse off, but the middle class is hanging in there — this recession has devastated a wide swath of people. Either you were rich and you lost a lot of money in the market or you lost a lot through real estate investment or through businesses that went belly up. This is an unusual marker in American history that’s gone on. That’s because this is the type of recession where everybody is affected in some way or another. I think there’s a lot of interest in seeing how celebrities are coping or managing. It seems like everybody in the country is very attuned to the new financial realities. It’s just a particular time and place for this type of subject to get discussed. No one’s going to talk about this stuff when the stock market is booming and everyone’s making money and living the good life.

Was there one piece or anecdote stood out to you that said, you know, We’ve got something here.

I think Andre Rison was particularly poignant because I grew up during his era of dominance. He was married to Left Eye and was a celebrity in his own right and I think that hearing his story, you totally get how this happened. There’s the spiraling nature of spending. He’s got a line in the doc where he says that his people all of a sudden all had bank accounts where you could put in at any time and pull out at any time … the check went in and everything else came out. Now, any guy in their twenties could probably add up all the stupid things you spend money on, given away or wasted. I think it’s something that really resonates, and if just have a lot more of it the scale is just that much more grand. Between Andre’s business investments, record labels, restaurants and these kinds of things it’s really demonstrated how quickly the money leaves the account.

Why were the leagues themselves hesitant to let you guys use their footage and do they have any culpability in your mind?

At the end of the day everybody has to take responsibility for themselves, their own choices and decisions. And a lot of the athletes that we interviewed own up to that fact. Now, are there things that the leagues and players unions could do more of? Absolutely. There could be more education, there could be more programs. Part of this — and this is what’s interesting about the structure of the doc — is that we looked at about how it came to be that there’s all this money in professional sports. It’s a really a phenomenon of the last 30 years. Salaries really exploded in the early nineties in all four major team sports. I think we’re seeing the first wave of guys who made a lot of money as professional athletes who are now having problems. Hopefully the younger guys of the next generation to come through and start to earn these tremendous paychecks. This is really a product of guys coming into the leagues in the eighties and nineties making all this money so quickly. I think the leagues weren’t really prepared for the fallout and fell short when it came to really addressing these issues. They’re starting to make more efforts now but certainly there’s a lot more to be done.

It does say something about our society, right, when this is such a common phenomenon?

What’s particularly interesting here is that we’ve just coming off an era where everybody wildly overspent. Not just athletes but anybody that got a mortgage or credit card bill that they couldn’t pay — was kind of this era of conspicous consumption. It was the McMansion or “MTV Cribs” era of America. I think that really kind of drove a lot of debt-driven spending. And it didn’t matter if you make fifty-grand or thirty-grand a year or if you make $10 million a year, you were probably involved with it in some way or another.

It’s not always talked about but female athletes –

Well, there are certainly examples. Marion Jones. Sheryl Swoopes has had some financial problems. Dorothy Hamill is another famous example. In terms of covering it in a 77-minute film … it was the shortest documentary we’ve ever made. It fits into an hour-and-a-half ESPN time slot. So by no means is the film comprehensive. I think our goal was kind of to get a conversation started. There’s not the same financial considerations as the major sports leagues, which we were kind of focused on covering. I don’t want to get in trouble with my girlfriend here [laughs], but are there differences in the way that men and women spend money? Sure. I think we haven’t seen as many examples but it might be by virtue of a smaller sample size.

Ultimately, do you think viewers will be sympathetic or angry when they see this movie?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Boy, well how do you blow a hundred million dollars?’ It’s kind of tough to feel bad for someone in that situation. It’s easy to dismiss this as an issue to discuss since it’s limited to a specific group of athletes who really don’t know any better. The truth is that it’s so much more obvious in the way that it happens than anybody takes the time to think about. The stories and the scenarios are varied but all share very common themes. I hope people might come away with a different level of appreciation of the issue and realize money certainly is not the answer. A lot of these guys say that they’re much happier now that they don’t have the burden of managing and dealing with that amount of financial success.

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