Top 5 Pandemic Takeaways from an Athlete’s “Ray Donovan”
As an attorney for professional athletes, I thought I’d seen it all. But the past 20 months posed novel challenges (see: death threats during a virtual draft) while raising the stakes on nearly everything else—from real estate deals and co-parenting to salary cuts and the renewed importance of social justice.
Exacerbating these issues, notably during a pandemic that hit average Americans especially hard, is the fact that our culture often treats professional athletes as undeserving of our sympathy. This can have material and legal consequences: I’ve represented athletes who could not get a good faith deposit on a real estate property returned—despite the property failing multiple built-in contract contingencies (such as the property not appraising, for example)—simply because of who they were.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years as an athlete’s “Ray Donovan” (aka “The Fixer”), it’s that, at the end of the day, they’re human beings like the rest of us. Even amid the challenges of COVID-19, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my clients absolutely shine as parents and stand up for what they believe in.
The events of the past 20 months (and counting) will have long-lasting consequences, for the athletes themselves and the executives and front offices they work with, who all face many of the same obstacles. As we head into 2022, here are five key takeaways for industry stakeholders to keep top-of-mind.
1. Understand how to navigate salary cuts and budgeting
Just like other workers whose livelihoods depend on crowds, athletes were the first ones to see their paychecks slashed. Those under contract saw unilateral hits, and many, for the first time, weren’t going to make money at all.
For those with kids, that meant filing modifications for support—a real challenge given the perception that athletes are made of money, and the fact that many support a network of family and friends. For those reasons, athletes were thrust into litigation—likely at higher rates than the rest of us.
The takeaway is that, in good times and bad, players need to understand how much they’re spending and do their best to work with business managers and financial advisers to set up a working, long-term budget. They can also come up with creative and less burdensome ways to help friends and extended family out, either by putting them to work at an athlete’s nonprofit or setting up a one-time gift. People like me don’t mind being the “bad guy” to help athletes handle these sensitive matters.
2. Real estate can get complicated
At the beginning of the pandemic, active and retired athletes were dealing with real estate deals gone awry. Like so many others no longer tied to a single location, many of them wanted to sell quickly and struggled to do so during an off-time in the market.
For others—like the retired athlete I mentioned earlier—the situation was the opposite. Some sellers chose not to work with professional athletes when it came to returning deposits or other contractual pitfalls, forcing them into litigation. Athletes need to have the right team in place to protect real estate assets, get them appraised, and prepare for any potential litigation.
3. We need to support athletes in using their voice for good
In the past 20 months, we saw more and more athletes realize their own power—whether that meant publicly speaking out about racial injustices, coming together to make a political statement (as was the case with the walkouts in the NBA and WNBA), or speaking out on mental health, like Simone Biles did so powerfully.
What I discovered, as I was fielding phone calls on these very issues with players on an around-the-clock basis, was that it wasn’t polarizing to be political. C-suite folks and others in the sports business have an obligation to educate themselves and support athletes in finding and realizing the influence that their voices have on important national conversations.
4. Athletes need a “family plan”
As you can imagine, the pandemic has reshaped families in the sports world and heightened child custody issues.
The pandemic has especially complicated co-parenting across states, countries, and even continents. I recently dealt with a mother who wanted to move to Miami (when it was a COVID hotspot) and another who was from a different country and could be asked to leave her children behind at any moment. Amid a patchwork of different state-reopening policies, athletes returning to the court/field had to navigate new co-parenting challenges dependent on where, when, and how they could travel to see their kids in different states.
With the pandemic still ongoing, these issues likely won’t be going away anytime soon. Athletes need a comprehensive family plan to deal with them, including prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, as well as custody arrangements negotiated ahead of time.
5. Remember: Sports often pave the way
The sports world doesn’t operate in a vacuum. In fact, it’s often an early mover that paves the way for corporate America at large. We saw this during the past 20 months, whether it involved return-to-work policies, vaccine mandates, or the strides the leagues have made in providing mental health resources.
The lesson here is that, like the industry itself, professional athletes face many of the same challenges as everyone else. While their responses may invite more public scrutiny, the extra attention goes both ways. Despite the added pressure, great opportunities have emerged for athletes to make a real impact—both on and off the field.
“Top 5 Pandemic Takeaways from an Athlete’s ‘Ray Donovan’,” by Michelle M. Gervais was published in the Sports Business Journal on December 8, 2021. Reprinted with permission.