The massive salaries and endorsements of sports stars do not guarantee a comfortable life — evidence suggests the opposite is true for many pro athletes. Sports Illustrated estimated that a staggering 80% of retired NFL players end up broke within the first three years after retirement. Fortune magazine cites research from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showing that 15.7% of retired NFL players declare bankruptcy within twelve years of retirement, which seems a bit more reasonable.
Even so, that's a lot of athletes burning through a lot of money and doing it for a wide variety of reasons. Financial difficulties all go back to bad decisions, and those bad decisions are not limited to the men's professional sports, either. A few of the greatest female sports stars have also suffered bankruptcy-inducing losses, including the ones listed below.
- Sheryl Swoopes – One of the pioneers of the WNBA, Swoopes made over $50 million in her basketball career thanks to Nike and other sponsorships. That figure is even more impressive given that for the early part of her professional career, the WNBA did not exist and she was forced to play overseas.
Unfortunately, Swoopes managed to lose her entire fortune via poor financial decisions and misplaced trust in agents and lawyers. In 2004, she declared bankruptcy.
- Dorothy Hamill – After winning the gold medal in figure skating in the 1976 Olympics as well as the U.S. and World Figure Skating Championships, Hamill (pictured above) gained fame and lucrative product endorsements. To those of us of a certain age, she was the "Breck girl" for the line of shampoo products, and she launched a late seventies trend with her classic short wedge haircut.
Hamill relinquished her amateur status shortly thereafter and became the star of the Ice Capades for an eight-year run. She further built up her income with television guest appearances and special skating events.
In 1993, Hamill made an ill-fated decision to buy the Ice Capades and try to renew interest in the flagging enterprise. Even with Hamill's backing, the Ice Capades faded. The losses forced the one-time "America's Sweetheart" to file for bankruptcy in 1996.
- Marion Jones – Jones won three gold medals in track at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney but was taken down via a messy divorce and the revelation that she used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). In 2004, one of her trainers revealed in an ABC 20/20 interview that he had injected her with PEDs, and her ex-husband turned on her as well.
Jones fought the claims for three years but ultimately confessed to PED use, initiating a downward spiral that included a six-month prison stint and the foreclosure of her home and sale of her mother's home to deal with legal fees and other expenses. To add insult to financial injury, she was stripped of her Olympic gold medals. Eventually, she was forced to file for bankruptcy.
All three have managed to learn from their mistakes and rebuild their lives. Swoopes is now the head women's basketball coach for the University of Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers. Hamill enjoys demand as a public speaker and was a 2013 contestant on ABC's Dancing with the Stars. Jones took up a second career in the WNBA and now operates athletic training camps.
Think of these three cases as stories of redemption instead of stories of failure. They show that life is possible after bankruptcy and bad life decisions. We hope more of the retirees from the men's professional sports that find themselves down and out can learn something from the experience of these three ladies.