NFL Players Show Ball Handling And Money Handling Aren't Mutually Exclusive

That players in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL earn big pay days is no secret to the rest of us—we are bombarded with reports of the newest “record-breaking” contracts and broadcasts of various athletes’ commercials in partnership with luxury car brands, sportswear brands, and even insurance companies. Combined with the fact that professional sports leagues double as highly lucrative businesses rolling in revenue, it is even more shocking that pro athletes are notorious for being horrible at handling their money.  

In 2009, Sports Illustrated published a report declaring that 78% of former NFL players had either gone bankrupt or were under financial stress just two years after retiring, The same article also reported that 60% of NBA players were broke within five years of retirement. A more recent working paper released in April by the National Bureau of Economic Research focused only on drafted NFL players who filed for bankruptcy, showing that 16% of players would go broke within twelve years of leaving the league. This percentage is close to the national average of bankruptcies for both the 25-34 (18.7%) and 55-64 (15.8%) age brackets as of 2013.  

Considering the average salary of an NFL player is around $2 million and the median income is $750,000, it is hard to believe that bankruptcy rates are so close to the national averages. But, take Warren Sapp as an example. The Hall of Fame defensive tackle made $82,285,056 throughout his career in the NFL, but filed for bankruptcy in April 2012—five years after retiring in 2007—listing $6.45 million in assets and $6.7 million in debts.   

How Sapp blew through $82 million can be attributed to certain factors that always come up in the trajectories of other pro athletes who also become cautionary tales. One of the major issues is divorce. When NBA legend Michael Jordan and his wife divorced, he had to pay a $168 million settlement. Sapp’s break up was not as costly, but he still had to pay $75,000 a month in alimony and child support.   

Sapp, like many of his former colleagues, also lived a decadent, luxurious lifestyle. Just like how Vince Young, another NFL player who went through a high-profile bankruptcy, spent $5,000 a week on meals at the Cheesecake Factory, Sapp spent millions on mansions, cars, and similar extravagances. These expenditures, both obligatory and habitual along with bad investments, are what led to his eventual financial downfall.  

Ultimately, however, the amount of money made over the course of an NFL player’s career has little bearing on long-term financial stability. First of all, it is up to the player himself to take advantage of the resources offered by the league (the NFL has a Financial Education Program (FEP) that seeks to help players with their financial decisions) and the league especially focuses on the transition of younger athletes coming from modest backgrounds to banking a pro athlete’s paycheck. Most importantly, players need to stay aware of the fact that an NFL career and the accompanying salary are not everlasting—no one wants to be a part of the next report detailing bankruptcy statistics. 

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