Sports Illustrated recently estimated that 80 percent of retired NFL players go broke in their first three years out of the league. How is this possible in a sport rolling in revenue with an average salary of almost $2 million a year?
With few exceptions, the star players I have represented since salaries exploded are set financially for life. These are the players at the tip of the compensation pyramid, but what about the rest? The median income in the NFL is roughly $750,000 and the average career span is less than four years. Most college graduates don't attain these levels of revenue in their first years out of college -- why are the athletes struggling?
1) Lack of competent financial planning advice.
Athletes are no different than any other college grads in that they were not trained as undergrads in budgeting, the tax system and long-term financial planning. This is an area of specialized expertise and an athlete receiving large compensation needs a safety net of advisors. Upon signing a potential draftee we encouraged them to pick a qualified financial advisor with a proven track record. These advisors help the athlete put together a budget, follow mutually agreed upon strategies, and protect themselves legally. A community oriented athlete will find beneficial relationships with businessmen off the field who are also willing to help.
When parents, university panels and alums screen prospective agents and financial planners, it enables the athlete to make a better choice. But many NFLers are approached on campus by financial planners and agents who offer financial inducements to sign with them. Some financial planners ask players to sign power of attorney enabling the advisor to make investments or withdraw money without prior authorization -- this is fraught with peril.
The NFLPA has tried to protect players financially. They have a program that scrutinizes financial planners and only allows referrals to the planners who they approve. The NFLPA offers education in the financial areas in a variety of ways. The NFL holds a mandatory seminar for draft picks that also tries to warn and protect them. Some athletes do not avail themselves of any of these protections.
2) Supporting a village.
Some athletes feel obliged to provide financial support to family, extended family and friends. They are sharing their largess with a large number of others.
Often cited as the No. 1 challenge, divorce drains funds in legal fees and dissipates assets. The athlete ends up with half of what they earned and may have large and burdensome alimony and child support payments.
4) Lack of awareness of how rapidly a career can end.
The athlete forgets that the current rate of compensation is not going to last and can be terminated by injury or skill at any point. Spending habits assume the revenue will be coming forever.
5) Lack of preparation for second career.
NFL players have long off-seasons they can use to lay the foundation for their life after football. Some athletes do not give it a thought and end up missing the structure and direction that football has given them. The early retirement years can be non-productive.
There are gifted advisors that an athlete can use. The league, NFLPA and agents try and push athletes to use help, which also embodies a teaching aspect that can empower awareness. It is up to the athlete to follow the guidance.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.