The phrase “art imitates life” is especially true for me when I watch HBO’s new show Ballers. Like the Rock’s character in the show, I’m an ex-NFL player who now works in finance. But when I first saw the trailer for Ballers, I was both excited and let down. The show seemed to be similar to HBO’s other bro-comedy, Entourage, which I mostly liked. At first glance, Ballers was going to take on the same plot-line: extravagant lifestyles of people we only know from afar, with a feel-good ending for the main character.
But the Hollywood-NFL comparison falls apart in one major way: one in six NFL players goes broke after retirement. Yes, NFL athletes are notorious for blowing their million-dollar signing bonuses and squandering their seasonal earnings ($435k minimum!).
I’m a former NFL player who, in my “new life” as an ex-pro athlete, has joined Merrill Lynch as a financial advisor. I was worried Ballers would fall for the same Entourage-style glamorization of the NFL lifestyle without addressing the financial hardship issue. After watching the first episode, my preliminary expectations could not have been more wrong.
A quick orientation: Ballers follows Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson as a former NFL superstar turned financial advisor as he deals with life after football. The show hit on some incredibly pertinent issues in its first episode. First was the difficulty that NFL athletes have in transitioning from the NFL and re-identifying themselves post-retirement. Without the schedule and regimen of an NFL job, several guys find themselves lost. What happens next? For the majority of their lives they have been football players. Now retired (from the NFL, but still young in non-NFL terms), they must move on to the next chapter of their lives and find a real job.
For Dwayne Johnson’s character, Spencer Strasmore, that was finding a role in a financial advisory firm. (Dude stole my move!) Throughout the episode, Johnson struggles to find the balance between friend, mentor and financial advisor with his new clients. He sees his friends squandering their money, yet he has trouble being real with them about their mistakes.
Spencer’s business partner, Joe, played by the hilarious Rob Corddry of Hot Tub Time Machine and Daily Show fame, tells Spencer throughout the episode that it is Spencer’s responsibility to not only sign these clients (at one point admitting to only hiring Spencer for his “access”) but also to save these guys from themselves. One story arc follows Vernon, a first-round pick whose storyline is almost a tired trope in this day and age. He’s spent his entire $12 million signing bonus, pays for everything for everyone in his family, and confesses that he doesn’t even know the people partying at his mansion during a week day. Spencer serves as a mentor to Vernon, and after giving Vernon a $300,000 check to get out of debt, signs the athlete as a client.
It was interesting to watch Spencer face some of the hurdles that I have seen in my job as a financial advisor. I’ve seen firsthand how money can destroy a player’s life, but I have also seen how easy it can be to lose a friend by trying to represent him as a client. Yet what I eventually realized is that the roles of friend and financial advisor are not mutually exclusive. You are a friend by being someone the athlete can trust to secure and manage his finances. I wonder if we’ll see the Rock’s character learn this lesson over the course of the show.
Watching the Rock in such a vulnerable role was a nice change for the superstar actor. We are so used to seeing the Rock as this badass alpha male who solves all the world’s problems while kicking ass at the same time. Witnessing him struggle with his own transition from football was a nice change of pace.
Among the different subplots, the transition motif was always prevalent. One character, Charles Greane, is a retired offensive lineman who finds himself sitting at home all day eating chips and pouting that his football playing days are over. His wife eventually compels him to go looking for a job, and he comes home as a used car salesman at a Chevy dealership. The post-retirement athlete transition is a really underrepresented theme in TV.
Another character, the eccentric Ricky Jerret (played by John David Washington), is abruptly cut from his team after an altercation at a night club. As the eight-year vet and Pro Bowl receiver begins to realize that his off-field actions have consequences, he is forced to beg for a job with the hometown Miami Dolphins.
Ballers is about its characters facing repercussions in a world that often tells them there are none. How does having this much money affect my life? Are there any downsides or only upsides? How do my off-the-field antics affect my job? How does retiring from the NFL affect the next 50 years of my life?
I’m excited to see how Ballers answers these questions. NFL athletes constantly find themselves in the spotlight. It is the country’s most popular sport and the criticisms of the league’s reputation are not lacking. As I mentioned earlier, one in six NFL players is broke in retirement. How in the hell does that happen? Even with education from the NFLPA and media like ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Broke, the rate that some of these athletes are blowing through their money is alarming.
Will Ballers pull any punches in its portrayal of the life of NFL superstars? I hope not. I am encouraged by what I saw in the pilot episode. It will be fun to watch how the season progresses — and how Spencer Strasmore’s career draws parallels with my own.
Check back here each week for my episode recaps as I follow the show.
Tyler Horn is a former NFL player turned financial advisor. Read the recap of Episode Two here.