Aaron Portzline at the Columbus Dispatch released a heartbreaking story today, about Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson filing for bankruptcy after his parents allegedly sent him spiraling into debt after grossly mismanaging his finances. From Portzline:
Johnson has earned more than $18 million during his nine-year NHL career, not including the $5 million he will be paid this season by the Blue Jackets.
Almost all of the money is gone, and some of his future earnings have already been promised — which is why Johnson, surrounded by a new team of financial advisers and an attorney, signed his financial surrender. […]
“Jack’s financial situation was detrimentally affected by the actions of those who were trusted to handle his business affairs,” Kessler told The Dispatch. “Unfortunately, these were predatory lenders going so far as to use Jack’s NHL contract as collateral.
“In order to best protect his future, he’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and he’s enlisted a new group of professionals who are helping him get through these matters. Jack remains focused on hockey. He appreciates the support of the entire Blue Jackets organization and the fans during what is a pretty difficult time.”
Johnson is certainly not the first professional athlete to file for bankruptcy, nor will he be the last. Professional sports often rocket young players into a world of large finances, large opportunities, and large pitfalls without any kind of preparation. If your last job was making $7.50 an hour, how do you react the first time someone puts a check worth $100,000 in your hands? It’s easy to sit back in my bought-from-IKEA desk chair and say, “Give it to a financial adviser.”
But financial advisers can be swindlers, too. Alan Eagleson was charged with 34 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, embezzlement and fraud, and we put that guy in the Hockey Hall of Fame before anyone realized what a dirtbag he was.
When you’re 18 or 21, when all you know is hockey, who else do you trust to act in your best interest but your parents? You likely won’t be able to tell the difference between a trustworthy accountant and a conman, but you know your parents. They love you. They sacrificed for you. At the very least, they have your best interests at heart.
Last year, the NHLPA rolled out an NHL Rookie Orientation Program. According to Sports Business Daily, “players were to partake in three days of training, including media training, and hear presentations on health and safety issues, as well as information on how to manage personal finances and general life skills guidance. The NHL and the NHLPA have jointly funded the program.”
The program is meant to introduce rookies to life as a public figure, who is likely making exponentially more money than their peers. (Johnson was drafted in 2005, long before this kind of comprehensive program existed.) It’s tough to say whether the program is effective, given its short life span, but it could become one of the best things that either the NHL or the NHLPA has done for its young players in the history of both organizations. Hockey, they know. Hockey they understand.
Finances? Responsibility with social media? Learning how to say no (or how to say “just a little”) to the sudden flood of potentially negative influences their new paycheck and social status has thrust on them?
Jack Johnson’s bankruptcy is heartbreaking, for him and his loved ones. But it’s also a reminder that hockey takes very, very young people and trains them to be excellent at one specific thing. It’s up to the people around them—team management, the NHLPA, and the NHL itself—to act as advocates and guides for managing all the baggage that comes with being excellent at that one thing.
Being an 18-year-old professional does not make you an adult; education and understanding does. The NHL always talks about it’s “young men,” but the emphasis there should not be on “men.” The emphasis should be on “young.”