Why NFL Players Are Not The Enemy (Alternate Title: It's Not "Billionaires" Versus "Millionaires" Here)

"For many years, the collectively bargained system—which has given the players union enhanced free agency and capped the amount that owners spend on salaries—has worked enormously well for the NFL, for NFL players, and for NFL fans."


Care to guess who wrote the above statement?  I bet you would be stunned to learn that it was owner mouthpiece and disciplinarian extraordinaire Roger Goodell.  Even crazier?  He wrote it just this past April.  For the Wall Street Journal.  It’s true.


The lockout is still in place only because the owners decided a couple years ago that if the players were happy with the current labor situation – that must mean it is bad for the owners.  Now, that may seem overly simplified but it is nevertheless the entire foundation for the owner’s position.


 As of this writing, the morning of July 22, 2011, the players/NFLPA have been presented with an offer that has been approved by 31 NFL teams.[1]  The problem is that the players never agreed to the final proposal.  The owners are parading this around as an "agreement" even though it lacks a basic element of a contract:  a meeting of the minds.  Now, to be fair, the owners are making a smart PR move because the average American just wants to watch football.  Politics and economics be damned, there better be NFL games every Sunday from September through January.  Otherwise there will be hell to pay.  Any player who objects should just shut up and take it.  I mean, they all make millions of dollars to play a game, right?  Who are they to demand more money? 

Here’s the problem.  The average NFL career is something like 3.5 years.  The average salary for an NFL player per year is $1.9 million.  Yes, I know this sounds like a lot of money, but we’ll get to that in a bit.  The minimum salary was $325,000 for 2010.  As you might imagine, a healthy majority of the NFL players make right at or just above the minimum salary.[2]  Which is why the median salary is $770,000.  The Peyton Mannings, Tom Bradys and Drew Breeses of the NFL world are the exception and not the norm.  And even they are not what Chris Rock would call "wealthy".  They may have 8 and 9 figure contracts spread out over multiple years on paper – but the only number that matters to them is the "guaranteed" money.  No one ever makes 100% of the possible value of the contract because the owners are smart enough to cut any player making too much and avoid paying the truly big bucks.  With no penalty.


On the flip side, did you realize that 352 players were placed on injured reserve in 2010?  That averages out to more than 10 players per team that were severely injured and unable to perform their job.  Meanwhile, it is not like the NFL has the best Workers Compensation program.  Anyone who puts on an NFL uniform is risking their health just to do their job.  Not to mention the fact that the lifespan for former NFL players is significantly less than the average American male.  As Count Rugen once told Prince Humperdinck – if you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.  Well…….. for an NFL player, this is incredibly true.


Making matters worse is this fallacious premise that the NFL is filled with a bunch of millionaires playing a game.  Let us now destroy this well-accepted myth.

If the average player makes $1.9 million… how about we just round up to $2 million for convenience in the math?  Okay, at $2 million, the government immediately claims roughly 35% of this figure as income tax.  Now, your agent makes about 3-5%.  This is from your gross, and not post-tax.  You also need to hire a manager.  This is another 1-2% of your salary.  Then you can factor in state and local taxes.  While the Houston Texans are fortunate to be gainfully employed where there is no state income tax, there are all sorts of other hidden taxes, including taxes for "athletic performances" on road trips – yes, you get taxed for this.  California even has a "jock tax."  All the while you have to hire an accountant to manage all of these crazy taxes and expenses for you.[3]  There goes another $50,000 just to file all the correct tax forms.  Which are cheaper than being audited by the IRS.  Imagine the billable hours an attorney would love to collect from you for trying to dodge your tax responsibility!


Suddenly that $2 million salary shrinks incredibly.  You are looking at pocketing maybe $500,000 per year from this.  Maybe.  Of course, you must remember that you will only make these "big bucks" for 3.5 years on average.  So that totals out to $7 million total… or something like $2.5 million post-taxes and expenses.  If you are lucky. 


Then you have your overhead.  Because as a professional athlete, you are a business enterprise unto yourself.  There’s the professional driver you have to hire.[4]  There’s the personal chef to make sure you are at peak condition.  There’s security detail.  Bodyguard.  You also cannot live in a house or neighborhood that would subject you to kids knocking on your door at all hours asking for an autograph.  This also assumes you are smart enough not to hire an entourage, or else that’s an extra expense.  And God forbid you stumbled upon having a mistress during your playing days.


What?  Did you think that the $500,000 was just money in the bank?  Your house is not free!  (Nor is the road beef.)


Now figure that the average NFL player is 27 years old, but the only college education is from a football factory that really made no effort to graduate you.  Even if you did graduate, you certainly did not acquire a useful degree in the process.  That "human resources" degree is not taking you very far in life by itself.


Next thing you know, you are a retired 28 year old that pocketed about $1.75 million after taxes from your glory days as an athlete.  But now you are unemployed and with a useless college degree (especially if you went to an SEC school) and trying to support yourself and your family for the next 30-40 years with your NFL windfall.  Granted, you may have had the best intentions of getting a degree and an education, but we all know that "student athlete" is a misnomer at best and more likely an oxymoron.  Your entire waking life from ages 16 to 27 was dedicated to learning a playbook, not the concept of supply and demand or comparative advantage.


That NFL salary no longer looks like much of a windfall.  Oh, and your extended family will want their cut, too.  Your momma’s top-end Mercedes needs upkeep and maintenance after all.  And we have not even mentioned health care costs.  Yeah, doctors are not cheap either.  Especially when you have degenerative conditions from many years of playing professional football.  Ankles, knees, backs, joints, hands……. a painful life at age 35 awaits.


Not to mention the growing incidence of post-concussion syndrome and the onset of dementia.  By age 40, the simple act of waking up and getting out of bed might seem overwhelming.


But yeah, you should have just kept your mouth shut and taken what the NFL owners offered.


[1] Naturally, Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders abstained because he’s anti-NFL (and in a weird way, this is a good thing). 

[2] According to ESPN, over 1,000 of the 1,890 NFL players received the bare minimum salary in 2010. 

[3] Because you are too busy trying to learn a new 800 page playbook or else be thrown onto the waiver wire for a replacement scrub who will kill himself for less money and do the same job. 

[4]  How many times do you hear the average commenter say "he should have hired a driver" when the athlete has an issue driving home or dealing with the public? 

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