The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Supporting Children Without a Pro Athlete Salary

T.O.’s decision to hold a poorly-attended workout instead of appearing at his scheduled family court hearing illustrates the well-documented connection between professional athletes and child support payments over the years. Last year, for example, the Jets provided Antonio Cromartie with a $500,000 salary advance so he could meet obligations for his nine children, spread across eight different mothers. Whether through poor money management or refusing to abide by settled terms, many non-custodial parent-pro athletes are unable to fulfill their child support obligations once their playing days end. No matter the excuse, many kids are left with little more than the last name of a former pro athlete, and sometimes the courts step in to prevent such a future.

Legal Blitz columnist Alex Weiner, a Temple University 3L, explores the connection between professional athletes and family law – specifically child support payments. Weiner presents the flaws in determining child support payments and how the law allowed this problem to get to this point.

Article:

An NFL season would not be complete without Terrell Owens making headlines.  This time, however, it has not been for reasons he wants.  First, the T.Ocho Show’s illustrious run ended – to everyone’s shock, I’m sure.  Despite labor disputes, the football season started on time (unlike our NBA friends), but T.O. was not on a depth chart.  On October 24th, the 37-year old held a workout to showcase the remains of his football skills; no teams showed.

The stunt was not a total waste though, as he did get a contract offer from Chicago.  The only problem: the call came from the Chicago Rush of the Arena Football League instead of the Chicago Bears (which makes sense, because the Bears are already so strong at wide receiver).  Oh, and on second thought, there was another problem: T.O. had already scheduled a child support court hearing on October 24th.  Consequently, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

T.O. had scheduled this court date in hopes of modifying his payments, which were based on his multi-million dollar contract he had with the Dallas Cowboys a few years ago.  With no such salary from the Rush or any other employer, he sought a diminished payment schedule.  In light of T.O.’s latest newsworthy antic, we at The Legal Blitz had the pleasure of extending our reach to the family law context by investigating the influence of large salaries on pro athlete child support obligations.

The connection between professional athletes and child support has been well-documented over the years.  The sexual exploits and subsequent child support obligations of Larry “Grandmama” Johnson were notoriously scrutinized throughout the 1990s, when he fathered at least five children by four women.[i] Shawn Kemp reportedly had seven children with six different women.[ii] New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie has nine children with eight different women who are spread across six different states, and that’s based just on the most recent stats we could locate.[iii] In March 2010, the Jets provided Cromartie with a $500,000 salary advance in order to meet outstanding child support payments.[iv] Leading the squad is former NFL running back Travis Henry.  At last count, he had eleven children with nine women; the good news is that his previous growth rate should taper off since being sentenced to three years in federal prison for cocaine trafficking.[v] And where would this list be without mentioning Latrell Sprewell?  He reportedly had three kids from three different women before the age of 21, tacked on a few more during his NBA career, but refused a $21-million contract in 2005, claiming he would not be able to feed his children with such miniscule funds.[vi] With his widespread seed and his tax delinquency (he’s ranked #1 in Wisconsin with $3,632,514.71 outstanding), he may have been telling the truth.[vii]

Not surprisingly, many former pro athletes struggle to live up to their child support arrangements after their colossal salaries expire.  Athletes are in a unique position because they receive large sums of money, but typically experience a sudden drop in wages upon retirement (unless athletes can find a way to emulate the “Magic Johnson Enterprises” model).  The collection of former athletes with “child support payable” in their personal financial statements can be split into two groups: the guys who cannot pay, and the guys who just do not want to pay.  The following excerpt is especially illustrative of this dichotomy:

“James Brooks, a former All-Pro running back for the Cincinnati Bengals, and Ron LeFlore, who led Major League Baseball in stolen bases in 1980 with the Detroit Tigers, provide two recent cases in point.  On September 2, 1999, James Brooks was arrested in Atlanta and taken to Cincinnati for his failure to pay child support.  Despite having earned $ 1 million per year at the height of his career, Brooks owed $ 107,705 in back child support.  Brooks did not pay the money and remained in jail until the resolution of the case in November of 1999, when he was sentenced to six months in jail plus 300 hours of community service after pleading no contest to the charges against him.  One would assume that if Brooks had the money, he would rather pay than sit in a Cincinnati jail cell.  By way of contrast, Ron LeFlore was arrested in Detroit on September 28, 1999, after attending the closing ceremonies at Tiger Stadium.  LeFlore was charged with failure to pay more than $ 50,000 in back child support.  When LeFlore was ordered to pay $ 3,000 or go to jail, LeFlore, unlike Brooks, came up with the cash the same day and immediately fled from Michigan.”[viii]

Regardless of which group an athlete maintains membership, the result is the same: a child is being deprived of money he/she relies on for support.  Accordingly, some courts favor “good fortune trusts,” where athletes who can expect sharp declines in gross income based on their imminent inability to play professionally are required to set aside some current inflated earnings for future distribution to their children.  Former major league outfielder Kal Daniels was subject to an arrangement that required him to put forth 17% of his baseball earnings for one child.[ix] In addition to the child’s needs at the time of the judicial opinion, the court accounted for the fact that Daniels’ salary would substantially decline by the time the child reached college and adjusted accordingly.  The court reasoned that his future earning potential was limited by his ability to play baseball professionally, so the money was set aside while it was available.  Other state courts have relied on similar reasoning for professional athletes, including former Orlando Magic star Dennis Scott and basketball journeyman Vincent Askew.[x]

As one family law expert rationalizes:

“The approach of these cases, in establishing a good fortune trust, is essentially sound.  Children should not be deprived of funds that they otherwise would have received had the marriage remained intact, merely because these funds do not pay for everyday living expenses, but fund such items as trusts, savings, and education.  Therefore, in high income support cases, the courts should be willing to apply a more elastic definition of what constitutes support.”[xi]

Good fortune trusts have been touted as an effective approach to minimizing the long-term effect of professional athletes/amateur fathers who squandered paychecks from their playing days, all to the detriment of their children who must share in their “riches-to-rags” tragedy.[xii] Indeed, such an approach exposes the true variance between a paid athletic career, which often lasts just a few years, and a proper child-rearing, which persists for eighteen years and beyond.  At the same time, the trust fund approach fundamentally labels all non-custodial athlete-parents as “deadbeat dads” (either through ignorance or irresponsibility) – a characterization that is far from accurate.

Gary Payton, seen here with his wife Monique, has been described as a "model father" by the mother of his first child (Courtesy Zimbio.com)

Some non-custodial parents in the sports world have stepped up to the plate in this context.  One class of athletes are those such as Larry Bird and Jim Palmer who obey child support arrangements, but have maintained little to no relationship with their non-custodial children.[xiii] Gary Payton is in another category; in addition to his three kids with his current wife, Payton fathered a child from a prior relationship, and the woman once described him as a “model father.”[xiv] For these reasons and others, not all states agree with the good fortune trust approach.  The Colorado court system, for example, was confronted with the case of former Broncos running back Steve Sewell and ruled on appeal that a trial court-mandated $25,000 educational trust for Sewell’s 16-month-old son surpassed the scope of statutory authority.[xv]

In short, good fortune trusts are worthy of consideration since high-paid professional athletes usually maintain their income levels for only a few years.  Expectedly, the applicability of these fund arrangements is restricted by the array of statutes and common law principles across the states.  Good idea or not?  We leave it to you to decide.  One thing I think we can all agree on is that T.O. should probably confirm his family court schedule before scheduling another workout.


[i] Grant Wahl & L. Jon Wertheim, Paternity Ward, Sports Illustrated, May 4, 1998.

[ii] Dave Hyde, Wade Shows Deadbeat Sports Dads a New Way, South Fla. Sun Sentinel, March 15, 2011.

[iii] Susan Edelman, Cromartie is Gang Green’s Top “Seed” with Eight Baby Mamas Over Six States; How Jets’ Big Daddy Goes “The Whole 9”, N.Y. Post, Oct. 10, 2010, at 18.

[iv] Id.

[v] Hyde, supra note 2.

[vi] Pat Borzi, Sprewell Tries to Turn Down the Volume, N.Y. Times, Nov. 4, 2004, at D5.

[vii] Thomas C. Quinlen, Planning for the Future: Using Child Support Trusts to Prepare Both Father and Child for Life After Professional Sports, 2 Vand. J. Ent. L. & Prac. 108, 110 (2000) (citations omitted).

[viii] http://www.revenue.wi.gov/delqlist/Topten.htm

[ix] In re J.T. (K.D.), 16 Fam. L. Rep. (BNA) 1046 (N.Y. Fam. Ct. 1989).

[x] See Finley v. Scott, 707 So. 2d 1112 (Fla. 1998) (stating that a managed trust is appropriate placement for child support money in excess of current need); Lee v. Askew, No. 02A01-9805-JV-00133 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1999) (ruling that although money should be set aside for the child through use of a trust vehicle, the remains of the trust would revert to the obligor); In re Paternity of Tukker M.O., 544 N.W.2d 417 (Wis. 1996); Branch v. Jackson, 629 A.2d 170 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1993).

[xi] Laura W. Morgan, General Practice Child Support and the High Income Parent: The Uses and Misuses of the Good Fortune Trust, 72 Fla. Bar J. 102, 104 (1998).

[xii] Quinlen, supra note 7, at 109.

[xiii] Sports Illustrated, supra note 1.

[xiv] Id.  See also Estevez v. Superior Court, 27 Cal. Rptr. 2d 470 (App. 2d Dist. 1994) (Emilio Estevez, who is of course relevant because of portrayal of Gordon Bombay, was timely and more than adequate with his child support payments, providing his full financial portfolio was not open to discovery).

[xv] In re Marriage of Sewell, 817 P.2d 594, 598 (Colo. Ct. App. 1991).

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