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By Gary Belsky
November 24, 2014
Aaron Doster—Cal Sport Media via AP Images

In Jonathan Rosen’s 1997 novel Eve’s Apple, a character describes her mother as someone who wanted to “have her kids and eat them, too.”

It’s hard not think of such parental malevolence when considering the recent bankruptcy filing of Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson, whose financial woes were caused almost entirely by the financial evildoings of his parents. But despite the extreme nature of this case—and because of the surprising frequency of money troubles for professional athletes—there are two valuable lessons in Johnson’s travails that are relevant to sports fans and the rest of finance-fogged America.

Lesson 1: We should start teaching personal finance in kindergarten.

Despite a tremendous increase over the past 30 years in the number of reliable sources offering solid financial advice instruction to anyone who cares to learn—from Money magazine to motleyfool.com to most reputable financial services companies—most Americans are woefully ignorant when it comes to basic principles of money management. As a country, we just don’t know enough about borrowing, saving, investing and insurance. And while some some states are being taken to address this problem, we’re only at the early stages of what will be a very long process.

Don’t believe me? Check out the four main recommendations of the President’s Advisory Council of Financial Capability—all of them smart—and tell me how close you think we are to solving the problem. Every school, in every state, needs to incorporate financial literacy into curriculums from the earliest stages, i.e., from the time kids learn their ABCs and numbers. The only way to overcome the inherent tedium of personal finance—a topic about as exciting as someone else’s golf score—is to make it less of a “subject” and more of a tool. I’ve been writing about personal finance, on and off, for nearly a quarter of a century and the only way to successfully educate all but the biggest money nerds is to make zucchini bread. That is, we have to hide the good-for-you-but-unappealing-stuff (apologies to zucchini farmers) in more exciting fare.

Lesson 2: Professional athletes are particular vulnerable to being ripped off.

When we look at professional athletes we see (or imagine) any number of positive qualities: talent, discipline, focus, commitment, bravery. But while most of those traits exist to greater and lesser extent in all sports stars, the one quality that must be present is what insiders call “coachability.” For every athlete MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL athlete there were dozens of others with similar skills who weren’t able to make it to the big leagues because they wouldn’t or couldn’t follow directions. I worked at ESPN for 14 years and I was struck by nothing so much as the willingness of otherwise supremely confident and self-directed men and women to listen to their coaches, trainers and managers. For good reason, too: These authority figures possess expertise that athletes respect and desire, a treasury of knowledge and experience from which they hope to achieve success and extend their careers.

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of
careers.

The problem with this malleability is that it often applies to experts in fields outside their core sport—such as health, nutrition or fitness—but especially comes into play with complex or arcane subjects like finance. Once an athlete trusts a financial adviser, heaven help him or her if said adviser is up to no good or even simply incompetent. (Heaven help all of us if it’s a parent who’s doing the exploiting.) Most of the major sports leagues and players’ unions recognize this and try to provide guidance, protection and warning to their athetes, but they could and should do better. I write this knowing how difficult such a challenge is, not just because athletes work as hard and as long as they do to earn their rich salaries but also because they are, generally, young and cavalier about risks of all kinds. Such is youth.

If I were King of The Sports World—a development unlikely to occur any time in the near future—I would require that a majority of every pro athlete’s earnings be directed to some kind of TIAA-CREF type organization that would safeguard their fortunes until they are through with their careers. Such an arrangement might not be popular (or legal or practical) but it would ensure that far fewer pro stars are fleeced because they haven’t been taught well to handle their money and have been taught too well to follow orders.

Oh, yeah, one other rule in my hypothetical sports realm: Even after athletes retire, I wouldn’t give them control of their money until they’ve taken a few financial literacy courses.