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Can NFL players survive without pay?

They're extremely well-reimbursed by anything but Wall Street standards, but too many are ill-prepared if the cash spigot stops flowing because of a work stoppage.

By doubleace Mar 15, 2011 1:05PM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.


The all-but-assured National Football League work stoppage -- that means no Sunday football next fall -- has been described as millionaires vs. billionaires, a contest to see which rich guys blink first. 


The 1,700 players, after all, averaged $1.87 million in pay this past season, with a median of about $700,000 and a minimum of $320,000. The owners of the 32 teams? Most were extremely wealthy before they bought their teams, and sure haven't suffered any financial setbacks since then.  Post continues after video.

"In reality, it is a battle of wildly successful businessmen vs. young athletes," wrote Tim McManus on "Some players are millionaires, some are dead broke, and the rest are simply racing against the inevitable end (the average NFL career lasts three seasons). Almost all of them are outmatched and undereducated."


More importantly in this case, it's likely that many of the players -- despite knowing that the owner lockout was coming -- have done almost nothing to prepare financially. MSNBC, citing financial experts familiar with the league, estimated that about 380 NFL players still live paycheck to paycheck. NFL players are not famous for planning for the future. Sports Illustrated has estimated that 78% are broke within two years of their retirement.


Many players are "going to be hurting," New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott told MSNBC. Scott, 30, who would lose $6 million if the 2011 season is canceled, says he is frugal by NFL standards, driving his 2002 Lincoln Navigator "into the ground" and purchasing a $700,000 home.

Scott said some "young guys see what the older guys have, and they’re not there yet. They're trying to catch up and keep up with the Joneses" by buying $2 million mansions.


For many, the result is financial trouble:

  • Luther Elliss, who earned $11.6 million with the Detroit Lions from 2000 to 2004, filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and has recently relied on friends and local churches to pay his bills.
  • Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who pulled in an estimated $18 million during a 10-year career, lost much of it through bad investments.
  • Mark Brunell, now a New York Jets backup quarterback, filed for bankruptcy in June despite contracts that have paid him $50 million during his career. He blamed bad real estate investments.

Steve Piascik, a CPA who advises athletes on their finances, told MSNBC he spends "a good 25%" of his time steering pro clients away from too many flashy toys -- "cars and jewelry" -- and often tries to separate them from family and friends who press the players for gifts, loans or investments in risky ventures. He said he cut ties with one NFL rookie who insisted on buying his mother a $2.1 million home.


A worst-case example might be New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who, despite signing a five-year, $12 million contract in 2006, had to get a $500,000 advance from his employer before the 2010 season. Cromartie's problem apparently wasn't cars, mansions and bling; he had fathered seven children by six different women in five states and was facing at least five paternity suits.


Not all the players are spendthrifts, of course.


Scott, the Jets veteran, said years of financial planning will allow him to comfortably survive at least a year without pay.


"Some players never see the end (of their careers)," Scott said. "I just wanted to start preparing for the end. … I'm all set no matter what -- lockout, no lockout." He said he will have his home, cars and the educations of his two children paid off in full this year.


"I learned something a long time ago from Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens," Scott said. "He said, 'You can live like a king for a while, or you can live like a prince forever.' I’m satisfied with living like a prince forever."

NFL players are paid by the week during the season, getting 1/16th of their contract for each game, plus smaller amounts for exhibition games and the post-season. By September, most will be eight months distant from their latest paycheck. Their league-paid health care benefits will have stopped, perhaps replaced either by benefits supplied by their union or a self-paid COBRA.


Even before the past season ended, it was reported that an unnamed Philadelphia Eagles player had approached teammates asking for a $100,000 loan to get him through the lockout.


The players' union, the NFL Players Association, plans to pay each player $60,000 if the whole season is wiped out, but that's not much by comparison, even if a player had been earning just the league-minimum $320,000. Endorsements and appearance fees are likely to dry up, too.


Some might get creative. Baltimore Raven safety Tommy Zbikowski, who had a 70-fight amateur career, plus one pro fight in 2005, returned to the boxing ring last month and won with a first-round knockout. He was paid $10,000, a long way from the $500,000-plus he made playing football last season.


To McManus, the writer, it is obvious the players will not hold out for long: "History has shown that the union will fold a couple strides into a work stoppage. … The men cutting the checks have enough money to survive not just a lost season but a nuclear winter, while a bulk of the players cannot endure even a small dam in the revenue stream."

And then there's the wife factor. Look back at 1987, the last time the NFL stopped playing because of labor strife; one week's games were canceled, followed by three weeks of games played by "replacements."

The Seattle Seahawk players held a meeting after the second week of "replacement" games. All the players and five wives attended. After the meeting, player rep Kenny Easley assured the media that player support of the strike was "solid." The next morning, the five players -- including wide receiver Steve Largent, the team's star -- whose wives had attended the meeting crossed the picket line and rejoined the team. The strike collapsed the next week.

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