We are weeks away from the 2022 NFL Draft that will begin Thursday April 28 in Las Vegas. Young men will become millionaires overnight, basically, but with great power — and money — comes great responsibility. In the weeks and months following the draft, information about rookie contracts will make their way to mainstream and social media as the general public discusses the multimillion-dollar deals. However, when it comes to NFL contracts, I liken them to icebergs. The big numbers float on the surface, while the incentives and back-loaded components lie underneath. For instance, the NFL is the only professional sports association where contracts are not guaranteed by default. Other than the signing bonus, players are occasionally able to have their base salary guaranteed for a season or two. Deals like the five-year, $230 million fully guaranteed contract that Deshaun Watson signed with the Browns are not the norm but can — and probably will — influence the structure of contracts going forward. While the league has certainly made strides the last few years as it pertains to more player-friendly contracts, they are still light years behind the NBA and MLB. According to a study done back in 2015, roughly 16% of retired football players declared bankruptcy within 12 years of the conclusion of their career.
An NFL career lasts three years on average, with spikes of income throughout. If managed correctly, even the lowest paid player should be able to purchase real estate outright and set up college funds and retirement accounts — if only it were that simple. An alarming statistic suggests that more than three out of four players, or 78%, fall into severe financial stress in just two years after retirement. One factor is the pay structure — especially for younger players. As mentioned before, most will receive a sizeable lump-sum signing bonus, and some are easily lured into obtaining the luxurious lifestyle that comes along with the glamorous perception of being a professional athlete. That standard of living may become more difficult to sustain as years three and four approach and income begins to level out. It is not uncommon for players to be broke in the off-season, as salaries are only paid out over the 18-week season and not everyone budgets well.
In 2020, the median household income in the U.S. was $67,521, so I get the skepticism that some feel when it comes to talking about athletes in financial straits. After all, the median NFL salary was $860,000 back in 2019, and that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was signed in 2020 increased minimum salaries by 20%, with less tenured players receiving at least $705,000 in 2022. The number will continue to increase incrementally, reaching $1.065 million in 2030 for that particular group. The floor for players with at least seven years of experience will increase to $1.48 million by 2030. Salaries fluctuate tremendously based on position, with quarterbacks racking in the lion’s share of dough. When you take a more realistic look at the league as a whole, it may be surprising that roughly 60% of players are on minimum-salary contracts. Another component of the CBA gives players a larger percentage of league revenue; increasing the portion to 48%. Expanding the playoffs to include two additional teams is expected to bring in another $150 million in revenue. Adding a 17th game to the regular season schedule also facilitates the inclusion of a “media kicker.” In layman’s terms, that 48% could rise to 48.5% if the NFL’s television deals increase by 60%, and actually, the percentage could go as high as 48.8% if television revenues increase by 120% or more. Judging from the intensity of this past season’s playoff games, those marks aren’t exactly unattainable.
These are all good gestures by the league, but we’ve all heard the old adage “more money, more problems,” so what is the NFL doing to help its current and former players sustain the wealth generated during their playing years? From 1997 until 2015, the league held a rookie symposium where all draftees took part in a four-day seminar to become acclimated to life as a pro before going off to their respective teams for training camp. During the symposium, current and former players spoke on life on and off the field. Videos and workshops also discussed decision making, physical and mental health, and finance — to name a few topics. But, what about undrafted rookies? After all, almost 55% of rookies sign as undrafted free agents. Well, in 2016 the NFL replaced the central-based symposium with the Rookie Transition Program. With the new program, each of the 32 teams are able to customize their orientation programs, incorporating community and tradition. There is a degree of uniformity to be maintained, and the inclusion of financial education is one very important aspect mandated in the program.
Although it’s easy to blame youth and inexperience for the mismanagement of millions and the subsequent struggles, this is not a problem limited to younger players. Veteran players have had their share of financial woes as well. Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp enjoyed a successful and prosperous career as a defensive tackle, winning a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. He wasn’t as prolific with his finances, however, and lost nearly $82 million dollars before filing for bankruptcy in 2012. A seven-year broadcasting job with NFL Network following a 13-year playing career did not prevent the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year from having to auction off his belongings, including a 15,000 square foot home. Despite signing two $36 million player contracts, within five years he had $6.45 million in assets and was $6.7 million in debt. His debtors included friends, banks, lawyers, the IRS, an ex-wife and four mothers of his children. Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar lost nearly all of his earnings due to what he described as theft by his own father who was managing his funds. In addition to several failed business ventures, Kosar once lost $15 million in one single transaction.
One of the best wide receivers to ever play the game, Terrell Owens should have never found himself in the financial position he was in. Nevertheless, he lost between $80-$100 million and had to resort to playing in an indoor football league to meet his $50,000 child support obligations. Clearly, the need for financial education does not disappear as players progress through their careers, as evidenced by the aforementioned cases.
The league’s player engagement group is bringing financial literacy back to the forefront with the creation of its Personal Finance Bootcamp. The four-day program gathers current and former players, along with their significant others, to discuss budgeting, investment planning and risk analysis. Investment coaches are on-hand to educate players on asset classes and what to look for in a financial advisor. Former running back Clinton Portis is a prime example of suffering the consequences of not choosing an advisor wisely. He reportedly lost most of his $43.1 million career earnings due to what he described as shady investors and financial advisors defrauding him. Judging from his recent conviction in a healthcare fraud scheme, he has yet to fully recover from the loss. The NFL’s tuition assistance program covers the costs of the bootcamp and players were only responsible for their transportation.
While the CBA negotiated better pay, it is still up to individual players to lobby for guaranteed contracts as, apparently, that’s not an issue the league will be taking on for the time being. As such, better financial literacy is the greatest weapon where earnings and financial security are concerned. With the recent name, image and likeness legislation (better known as NIL), perhaps that education will begin earlier and, hopefully, by the time players hoist up their new jerseys on draft night, they’ll be equipped to make the most of their newfound wealth.
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