In 13 days, the National Football League may lock out its players. Nobody wants that outcome. Not the owners. Not the players. Not the fans. It would be a lose-lose-lose scenario; very depressing for all involved. But when faced with such a scenario, we have two choices: Wallow in it or seek out the silver lining. I, for one, am done wallowing.
I think there is some long-term good that could come from all this, and here’s what it is: This impending labor disaster might be the one thing that can shake some financial sense into the majority of the NFL’s players.
After all, nothing sparks a reassessment of financial priorities like the possibility of unemployment.
Of course, in the NFL, unemployment is always right around the corner. The game’s physical nature and its non-guaranteed contracts mean that any career can end at any time. A blown-out knee, one concussion too many or simple declining performance can draw a quick curtain on an NFL career. Consequently, NFL players generally end their careers when most professionals in other fields are just getting started.
The average NFL career lasts for three and a half years, so roughly half of the league’s players are out of the game by the time they are 25 years old. It’s the rare player who makes it to 30, and 35 is ancient. Despite all this, most NFL players seem not to see unemployment coming, and they therefore do not prepare for it.
Under league rules, the minimally paid NFL rookie makes $325,000 per year, a tidy sum by any reasonable standard. Everybody else makes more, and most make exponentially more. Still, according to a 2009 Sports Illustrated study, an astonishing 78 percent of former NFL players are bankrupt or otherwise financially distressed within two years of retirement.
People making such outrageous salaries have no excuse for quickly going broke, but they do have explanations, which tend to include some form of the following: “I didn’t think it would end so soon, and when it ended I wasn’t prepared.” Some never save a thing, and their last paychecks are spent before they get them. Others accumulate some savings but watch it disappear when their NFL income streams dry up. Still others lose huge sums of money to risky investments about which they might have thought twice had they known their time in the NFL was almost done.
Whatever the particular path to financial disaster, picking up the pieces can be difficult, because too few have trained to be anything other than an athlete. While the lights are bright and the money is flowing, NFL players tend not to think about insolvency and second careers, and when the lights go out, it’s often too late.
But not this time. Unless a lockout is averted in the next two weeks, the lights will go out for every player in the league. No salaries. No health benefits. Every man for himself. The uber-rich among them will be fine and may not even the feel the hit. But the average player likely will, at least a little bit. And the longer the lockout
lasts, the more it will hurt.
I don’t wish unemployment on anyone, but if there is a work stoppage, I do hope it hurts players just enough that they start to think about what will be required to save themselves from substantially greater pain several years down the line.
-- N. Jeremi Duru, a law professor at Temple University, is the author of "Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL."
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