A professional athlete just walked through your door to retain you as his/her attorney and you are excited because the athlete plays for your favorite team. If you are not careful, your assumptions about your new athlete client may cause a strikeout in the attorney-client relationship.
Understanding the Client Playbook
The first thing to understand about professional athlete clients is that they do not view sports the same way you do.
Professional athletes train their entire lives and possess talent, skill, and an understanding of the culture of their sport not always present on television. Few reach the professional ranks of any sport, and most who do reach the premier levels do not last very long.
Your professional athlete client likely takes a primal kill-or-be-killed view of their job, doing almost anything to keep it. They compete against their opponent every game and other players on their own team from taking their job every practice.
Many attorneys do not understand this mentality because non-athletes have a different career mindset. Non-sports professionals accomplish things over time and a slight delay or just satisfactory work is acceptable in most professions. However, athletes approach their careers with urgency and without complacency in order to maintain their spot on the team.
This mentality can easily carry over to off-field pursuits including lifestyle decisions, family, and business interests.
Playing the Game of Life
The athletic mindset can be hard for some athletes to adjust when they are off the field that can lead to a number of legal issues.
Some athletes face criminal issues attaching consequences apart from the general public. An athlete arrested for a DUI will receive significant media attention and his/her case followed closely while an owner of a small business will rarely face the same fate.
Family law issues are also common with athletes. Many athletes prepare for the season for more hours per week than most people work in other non-athletic jobs. Even during the season, athletes are rarely home and do not have the flexibility to drive the car pool, run errands, or take a sick child to the doctor. When athletes retire, their laser-like focus on their craft is unnecessary and athletes routinely have problems refocusing their attention to positive outlets. These issues contribute to as much as 80% of athletes going through divorce during their lives.
Business interests often lead to athlete clients becoming overextended resulting in illiquidity and in many cases insolvency. In 2013, USA Today reported the average NFL player made $1.9 million per year and a career lasting 3.5 years, with career earnings of $6.7 million. Athletes have little training to transition to into business after their athletic career is over as they have been trained as athletes – not businesspeople. Athletes regularly invest in businesses of childhood friends and relatives despite lacking a business plan, or even conducting a simple due diligence investigation. Often it is emotionally hard for the athlete to simply say ‘no’ to those who are close.
In 2009 Sports Illustrated found 78% of NFL players are in financial distress or bankrupt within two years after their career ends and 60% of NBA players face the same fate within five years. Why is this happening?
The answer to this question is complicated, but generally the problem is not properly addressed early by those working for the athlete. Many professionals with athlete clients rarely educate them about their finances and fail to protect the athlete’s assets before it is too late. It takes a knowledgeable professional with an understanding of the industry to be able to see the problems before it is too late.
Seasoned professionals routinely working with athlete clients will tell you there is not a singular way to handle athlete clients. However, there are a number of helpful practice pointers that should be followed:
- Find out why the athlete wants you on their team. Athletes are generally prideful and will not want to show weaknesses. If they ask for you to draft a contract for a loan, find out the reasoning and motivation for the loan. Most attorneys can draft a contract, but good athlete attorneys will steer their clients away from poor financial investments.
- Call an changeup. A pitcher may only throw two or three different types of pitches. He may look at problems in his life and think there are only a few solutions. Often, athlete client issues do not require a complex legal solution but rather a well reasoned solution and strategy.
- Be a coach. Athletes are coachable! Work to educate athlete clients about the issues they bring to you and they will likely be able to keep out of trouble the next time.
- Play your position. Athletes do not come to see a lawyer to sign autographs, take pictures, or hear about how great they are. They need your help and that is what you are getting paid to do. There will be plenty of time to discuss sports if you do a good job.
- Be the bad guy. Athletes can handle bad news. They have seen friends get cut, traded, injured, and likely have had the same thing happen to them at some point. In most circumstances, regardless of the news you deliver, your athlete client will bounce back.
- Call in a relief pitcher. If you have not dealt with many athlete clients, and you are having trouble determining their needs, interests, or viewpoints, refer the case to a professional who specializes in working with athletes. Learning from a sports veteran can help bridge the gap between what you understand about your client and what they expect you to know but will not say.