Super Bowl Sunday – Why NFL Players Aren’t Paid Nearly Enough

Just about everyone has someone else that they look up to. For some, that person is an actress or actor, yet for others, it may be CEO. Growing up, I always admired athletes.  On occasion we let our minds wonder what it would be like to live their life. Perhaps you’ve thought to yourself “I could buy a beautiful house, a nice car, and I’d never have to work another day in my life!”(you can achieve these things with planning too). In many cases this is true. I’m sure the Will Smith’s, Mark Zuckerberg’s and LeBron James’ of the world all live wonderful lives and have more money than they could have ever imagined. But what about those that aren’t at the top of their industry?  This isn’t always the case for them. In this article, with the Super Bowl LII just around the corner, I figured it could be fun to take a look at how much professional football players actually make. Of course, the best players have extremely successful careers, earning millions over the course of their playing days. And these guys will likely lead productive lives long after hanging up their cleats for the last time, possibly in broadcasting booths or in the venture startup scene as investors. But often these opportunities aren’t available to middling players and those struggling to make a roster.  Let’s cast aside the Tom Brady’s of the NFL for a moment, and take a closer look at the career earnings of the average NFL player, and compare to more traditional salaries.

The Average Salary and Average Career of an NFL Player

The numbers here are actually pretty startling. The average NFL career varies by position, but it’s always very short. For example, according to the Wall Street Journal, the overall average NFL career only lasted about 2.66 years, as of 2014. This was down from about 4.99 years in 2008. A lot of this likely has to do with the increased popularity of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, which allow fans to publicly express their displeasure instantly, placing pressure on league executives and coaches to make changes faster than in previous years when colleagues fail to live up to the extremely high standards of the fans. Now, while the average NFL career is over in the blink of an eye, in the NFL it literally pays to be big. Offensive lineman, who often weigh in at 300 pounds or more, tend to have the longest careers sticking around for about 3 years and 8 months. Wide receivers, often the skinniest guys on the field, tend to have the shortest careers, being kicked out of the league shortly after their two year anniversary. It’s probably a little more difficult for teams to find nimble 300+ pounders than it is to find relatively slim, but fast players. Also, ask the average football fan to name the 5 starting lineman for their favorite team, and they’ll probably come up empty. Offensive lineman have an important job (protecting the franchise’s hopes and dreams which rest squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback ), but it’s typically a thankless, and more importantly, an anonymous role making it hard to publicly criticize. The chart below further emphasizes just how short NFL careers are on average, by position:

Given that the NFL generated about $13 billion in revenue in 2017, and the very short average career lengths of its players, you would think that these players would be extremely well compensated. After all, even if you worked for 5 years, the money that you earned during that brief period would need to be able to provide housing, food, leisure, and everything else for the player and his family, for at least 50 to 60 more years. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite the glitz, and glamour associated with an NFL lifestyle, the average NFL salary, while comparatively high, is still just $1.9 million, according to various sources. Keep in mind that about 25% of this, if not more, will be sent to the IRS in the form of taxes and that about 3% of the remaining amount will find it’s way into the hand of the player’s agent who was responsible for negotiating the contract. The player may actually see just $1.38 million dollars over the course of his career. Now assuming that the player saves appropriately, and lives on about $100,000 per year or less, he may find himself with just over a million dollars or so left once his playing days are over. While most money managers would oppose this if the player then invested the $1 million or so dollars in an S&P 500 index fund like NYSEARCA: SPY, he may be able to generate about 10% per year on average, or about $100k annually. Ignoring the effects of inflation, sure, most people could live off of $100k per year – but the problem is that these numbers represent the average, but the norm. While the average salary is about $1.9 million, 250 players earned less than the rookie minimum salary of $450,000 during the 2016-2017 season, per pro-football-reference.com, which represents about 13% of players that earned money during the season. Additionally, about 1,400 players earned $1 million dollars or less during the season, representing about 71% of players in the league.

Post Playing Career

Living on a million dollar salary while playing shouldn’t prove challenging, but with the average career ending in just a few years, and most earning less than a million dollars a year during that period, many players will need to find work after their football careers end, and this is where the problems really begin. Many players like, like Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buccaneers (Harvard), and Tom Brady of the Patriots (Michigan), graduated from college before playing their first snap in the NFL. A handful of players like John Urschel formerly of the Ravens (MIT) and Carlos Dunlap of the Bengals (Miami) have even gone on to earn advanced degrees, but many players enter the NFL before graduating from college. Per various sources, only about half of the NFL’s players have graduated. Yet, many will need to enter the workforce in just a few years. But what kind of jobs will they be qualified for, absent a college degree? Apparently, not many. While numerous players go on to lead successful sales related careers at companies like Stryker (the leading employer of former players), and with prominent brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, where their fame should help, most of these roles require a college degree. This lack of education leads to over 78% of those forced out the league becoming unemployed or broke within just 3 years of retiring. 15.7% will file for bankruptcy at least once within 12 years of hanging up their cleats. Sure, a lucky few will find their way into a broadcasting booth, with the second leading employer for retired NFL players, ESPN, but these jobs are few, and typically reserved for the greats after they retire. Not exactly helpful to those players that need to work, rather than those the merely want to work.

Unfortunately, this paints a very gloomy picture, and one ends unfortunately for many. Take for instance, former Raven Chris McAllister who made over $50 million during the course of his career, but now relies on his parents to provide for his basic living needs. He isn’t the exception, though, and this happens more often than we’d like to believe. Each year hundreds of men, often from humble beginnings, are given large amounts of money for the first time and without much guidance. Because they failed to graduate, they lack the skills necessary to make themselves employable once their playing days end and the money has been spent. The good news is that the NFL is doing things to improve the situation. At the rookie symposium, former players, like ex-Detroit Lion Luther Eliss who retired with nearly none of his earned wages (over $11 million), are invited back to preach the importance of saving, and education to the younger players. Hopefully, they’ll heed his advice and that of others, and be better prepared for life after the gridiron.

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