A Silent Tragedy: The Financial Doomsday of the NFL Player

August 9th, 1985

I was born in Mobile, Alabama to a poor family. Mobile, a strange place and a football mecca. I wanted nothing more than to play football. For a poor black kid in Mobile, is there a bigger dream than to be a football star?

I was a big kid and to be big is coveted most among all other traits in highschool football. By my sophomore year I was six-foot-three and weighed 185 pounds. By my senior year I completed 219-372 passes for 3,332 yards for 22 TD's. I was an All-American honorable mention. I threw for 10,774 yards in highschool and still hold that record in Alabama to this day. 

I was highly recruited by schools all over the country and in February of 2003 I chose my alma mater. I said goodbye to my family in Mobile to pursue my dream of riches, fame, and success. My college career is of legend, at least in Mobile. By my junior year I was one of the best in all of college and I defeated the Fighting Irish in the Allstate Sugar Bowl 41-14. I was named to my All-Conference first team. I even beat out Chris Leak, my rival state's star QB.

I chose not to play my senior year of eligibility and entered the NFL Draft as a top prospect. My dream was coming true. I was going to be in the NFL, I was going to be rich, and I was going to achieve the dream of every young black kid in Mobile, Alabama. I was going to be an NFL QB.

For me, it also turned out to be the beginning of the end.

I was never known for my exceptional school skills. I majored in general studies in college but I never planned to use my degree. My career path was football. Just football.

My first NFL payday was massive. I received a contract that guaranteed me more money than my family had ever fathomed. I was going to be able to support my parents and my extended family. I could have anything I wanted. Drive anything I wanted. I wasn't even 25 and I was set for life.

I was wrong.

Nobody told me how hard it is to keep your edge on a team that has little support around you. Nobody told me that even at my draft position my job wasn't safe. Nobody told me I could be #3 on my depth chart in two years.

My money was guaranteed but I wasn't banking on just 32 million dollars. No, that was just supposed to be my first payday of many. Nobody told me how fast millions of dollars can disappear in heartbeat. Nobody told me how many people would come out of the woodworks wanting a piece of my riches. Nobody told me it would end up like this.

Nobody told me. Or maybe I just didn't listen. - J. Russell

The story of the Oakland Raiders promising first round draft pick is a told one. We all know his failure as a football player. What's often overlooked, however, is his example of how the very structure of the NFL pay systems sets up its young players for a future of a few years of unbelievable epicurean success but never addresses the shadow of destitution that rests behind every bottle of Crystal, in the trunk of every Bentley, and slowly grows in the attics of every summer home.

For the normal worker, we experience life far differently than the average professional athlete. As young adults we usually get a first job in a service industry flipping burgers or working retail for a few bucks an hour. In high school that is great as it allows us some fantastic purchasing power when there are zero bills to pay. We can go out to lunch three or four times a week. We can buy any videogame we want on a whim. We can comfortably live paycheck to paycheck because if the worst happens, there is always a safety net there to catch us and feed us. How great are parents?

As that young adult gets older he/she goes to college and learns the meaning of frugal living. Life is still good though. No bills. Just day to day expenses of food, booze, and entertainment. Then that young adult graduates and gets married. Suddenly, he/she realizes that they aren't so young anymore. School debt has piled up. The wedding costs money. The apartment costs money and that damn car is always breaking down.

Whether we listened to our parents financial advice or not, we are forced to now. The concept of scarcity becomes glaringly apparent now. There are only so many dollars coming in and there are always dollars going out. We learn what the hell a budget is and we begin to look back at that teenager we were with a mixture of jealousy and disgust. We knew so little then about the real world but how great was it having zero debt or responsibility? 

Jump forward fifteen years and three kids enter the picture. We've gone back to school to get our master's after the first kid got us in line and now we are entering the years of our mid-life where we will maximize our earning potential. Our young teenage self would look at us and call us rich, but our new matured self realizes that with the added income comes serious responsibility. We begin to put money aside for college funds, into mutual funds and retirement plans because we've come to understand that we'd like to be able to both provide and education for our children and retire before we are 75.

We've learned that even though we are making vastly more money than we were fifteen years ago in order to avoid amassing large debt our lifestyle simply cannot increase at the same rate. Maybe we've upgraded the house, got a newer car, and purchased a few pieces of art the wife wanted but there is just no way we can afford bottles of Cristal, Bentleys, or summer homes. That money is reserved for a retirement fund that will allow us to go to the Bahamas later on in life. The trials of life have taught us financial wisdom through trial and error and because our working career is so long those errors we made as young people are not so devastating.

This is not the case for young players entering the NFL. Their career cycle is backwards. For many of them, they will leave college and walk right into millions of dollars. It's like winning the lottery. If you give a young twenty something tens of millions of guaranteed money what do you think will happen? They will look at everyone else in their new socio-economic status and realize that their Jones's not only own huge homes and nice cars but they live extremely high income/ high consumption lifestyles. For young NFL players, this lifestyle has devastating consequences.

I believe that there is a big misunderstanding regarding how rich professional sports players really are. Just like us, where even though our income greatly increases as we get older, our purchasing power does not increase due to bills, expenses, kids, taxes, etc. the rich face the same issues, only only a much higher level. Also, there is a critical difference between us and the rich young NFL player. We have at least twenty or thirty years of career ahead of us.

The NFL player has an average career of less than 10 years.

Bottom line, a young NFL player has 10 years or less of his high incoming earning years to create a retirement plan, to create a nestegg for his kids, to build his college fund, and create an investment portfolio that will allow him to build enough wealth to lead a comfortable life throughout his retirement years.

There is a big difference between being rich and being wealthy.

The world is full of people who are rich but not wealthy. In fact, many people we would consider rich due to their high income jobs are living paycheck to paycheck like many of us who are decidedly neither rich nor wealthy. There was a study done recently that found that if the average MLB player were to lose his income today, at his current lifestyle he would be bankrupt within one year.

Count it. One year.

Being wealthy is often less a product of income as it is mindset. Nearly all of us can, with the right spending habits in this country, retire with considerable wealth. But it requires a major commitment to frugality, especially during our high income earning years when the temptation is to upgrade our lives because we can and everyone wants to sell us something for installments over time.

In other words, being wealthy is less about your income statement and more about your balance sheet.

I recently read about an example where firm wanted to host a few deca-millionaires so in order to make them comfortable they ordered a buffet of expensive wines and horderves, along with the standard fare of beer, cheese, crackers, and snacks. At the end of the meeting the expensive wine and horderves weren't touched, but the beer, cheese and crackers were gone. So the host asked one of his guests afterwards why he hadn't touched the expensive food and wine.

The man, who had driven to the event in his mid-90's Ford pickup, said, "Young man, I drink two kinds of beer, Budweiser and free. Always have, always will."

Being wealthy is far more likely to be a product of lifestyle than it is a product of paycheck.

So what's the point of all of this? Why all the boring financial talk? The point is simple. In the middle of a lockout we are already seeing young NFL players begin realize how short their fortunes will support their lifestyle once that money stream is cut off.

Put yourself in the shoes of an NFL player like Jamarcus Russell. You’ve grown up wanting to play football, you received a scholarship to play football at school, you graduated school with a degree but have no intention of developing those skills because your career is going to be football. You get drafted and receive your first of many huge paydays.

What do you do? You do what anyone of us would want to do. You buy a house (or two), a very nice car, gifts for all your friends and family, you maybe bail out your parents or friends in dire cases, and you live extravagantly.

Now there’s a lockout. Teams aren’t paying up and you watch as the month to month expenses of your lifestyle pile up, your money is quickly disappearing, and you are forced to either:

A) Adopt a more blue collar lifestyle. Maybe downsize your house and sell some of your stuff. For anyone who has had to do this in their own life due to job loss you’d know that it is both humiliating and demoralizing. It’s a very difficult decision, even if it is the right one.

But then someone comes up with a way to avoid Scenario A. They offer Scenario B.

B) Take out a high interest loan from a money smart individual or company because you know you just have to hold out until the season gets going again (or you get a job back) and everything is back to normal. You maintain your lifestyle but you’ve had to spend a little extra and go into some debt to keep from giving it up. No biggie right?


This is only the tip of the iceberg for many young players who haven’t learned how to develop the necessary wealth in their relatively short high incoming earning years and simply chose to live rich.

What’s even more tragic is how many of them will choose massive debt in order to maintain a lifestyle that for many of them isn’t guaranteed for any amount of time and for almost all of them is guaranteed for only 10 years or less.

This is only the beginning of the financial tragedy a lot of players are going to find themselves in soon and the financial tragedy many old NFL players are already experiencing. A Sports Illustrated study estimated that a full 80% of retired NFL players eventually file for bankruptcy.

Let me say that again. It is estimated 80% of retired NFL players file for bankruptcy. Ladies and gentlemen there is a hidden tragedy in the world of the NFL that we are being shielded from. Behind every bottle of expensive wine, lurking in every closet of every home, and behind every smile of the hundreds of people at every lavish party destitution hides.

This is the silent tragedy many of our sports heroes are sacrificing their bodies will eventually meet. Even more tragic is the fact that it will effect not only themselves but all of the dependents they collected during their glory years.

How can the NFLPA, knowing this reality, simply sit back and watch as its members suffer the crushing reality of life after football?

I've taken a lot of different stances during this lockout season of the NFL but this particular issue has particularly struck me. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that as more and more players are forced to take out lockout loans or decrease their lifestyle they will begin to apply huge pressure on the few players who are representing them in the court to get thing settled. 

Eventually, after enough time has ravaged players bank accounts, desperation will begin to set in and they will do damn near anything to get their income returned to them. The owners will be able to sit back and watch as the players turn on each other in an effort to save their individual lifestyles at nearly any cost. This is why the players so desperately need to the courts to rule in their favor. They need the courts to tell the NFL owners what to do because they simply cannot survive a war of attrition.

My purpose with this expose is not to lecture anyone on finances. We all make our own money decisions and we all experience the fallout of those choices individually and the last thing anyone needs is some stranger on a message board telling them what's right and wrong. That isn't my goal at all.

No, my goal with this piece is to hopefully shed at least a little light on the fact that while we may view this court battle as the rich vs. the more rich that isn't the case. Most NFL owners are truly wealthy. They can last for a very large amount of time without a payday.

A large amount of NFL players are not much different from you and I though, and perhaps in some cases they are worse off. They are facing the options of play football or experience crushing debt. Debt that will quickly force them into bankruptcy, humiliation, and a lifetime of physical pain and debt.

The NFLPA, in whatever form it is right now, needs to address the financial precipice that it pushes its players toward. The NFL itself needs to reach out and try to make clear to every young player that these are the years to be preparing for the future. ESPN can't hire them all when they are done. Someone needs to make it very clear to these players that now is the time to grow up. Now is the time to understand what the real world is like after football and now is the time to prepare for the future.

Right now is the time for the NFLPA and the NFL to come together and come up with a plan that will educate these young superstars entering the league that their future relies almost entirely on how they act right now with their new fortunes.

Both the NFL and and NFLPA, together, need to make it very clear that if their players don't start acting responsibly with their money they will most likely suffer the same fate as the majority of those that came before them. They need to make it very clear that when reality hits after football a destitute ex-NFL player can only say:

"Somebody told me. I just didn't listen."

March 3, 2011

I had to forclose on my mansion today. I thought at some point last year I could get a job again but it just didn't happen. Bankruptcy is looming in the near future. I don't even have the credentials for mid-level job.

Within the next year all of my guaranteed money will be gone. The circle is complete. I will end up once again in a small home back in Mobile, AL.

Nobody told me it would end like this. Just like it began.

- J. Russell

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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