Dismal Life After the NFL
As always on the first weekend of the professional football season, journalists and fans alike wondered excitedly how highly touted new rookies such as Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney would perform. But in our exhilaration over the new, let's not forget the old. The rookies who enter the National Football League each year take the place of others who depart the league. What happens to them?
According to calculations by Pat Kirwin of CBS Sports, some 15 percent of NFL veterans -- more than 250 players -- were replaced by rookies this year. Although we tend to think of professional football as unusually competitive, the truth is that this annual turnover rate is just slightly higher than what we find in the labor force generally. There is, however, an important distinction. Among the 13 to 15 percent of employees who generally depart their jobs each year, the majority leave voluntarily. Most football players don't.
Leave it to the always quotable Tom Brady of the New England Patriots to encapsulate the motto of the football star: "When I suck, I'll retire. I don't plan on sucking for a long time." Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, considered one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game but, in football terms, long in the tooth at 38, enthusiastically agreed.
Superstars, to be sure, are the exception who can make that choice. Few NFL players leave on their own terms. Most are forced out long before they expected to leave.
As a practical matter, NFL teams use a version of the forced-curve system popularized by Jack Welch at General Electric Co. In the pure version, all employees are given quintile rankings each year, and the bottom fifth are terminated or at least downgraded. Obviously, employees don't like the system much. (Microsoft Corp., with great fanfare, abandoned its version last year.)
Professional football doesn't use a forced ranking, but the process is intensely competitive and the size of the workforce is strictly limited by the collective bargaining agreement. In consequence, as younger talents arrive, a significant number of employees are let go each year. Training camp purges more than a third of a team's roster (cutting from 90 to 53), although many of those are rookies who had little chance of making the team.
Most NFL players are out of the league by their mid-20s. The news is usually delivered by telephone. The process is sudden and jarring. A former league executive offers this description:
The call sets in motion steps to purge the player from the roster quickly and expediently: locker nameplate is removed, personal items boxed, playbook taken, forms executed with trainers (to avoid lingering liability for the team) and travel arrangements made. Most players barely get a moment with their position coach; coaches have already moved on to preparing for the next practice. The business of football moves at warp speed.
About half of married NFL players divorce after retirement. According to Sports Illustrated, more than 3 out of 4 declare bankruptcy within five years. Even those whose deals are measured in the millions often spend it all as fast as it comes in.
This isn't a problem with the NFL alone, of course. Plenty of investment bankers go belly up once the seven-figure bonuses stop coming in, and many families with steady six-figure incomes find themselves living paycheck to paycheck.
But professional athletes tend to be poorly prepared for life after a few short years earning money doing the only thing they are trained to do. The league has created a variety of internship and educational programs to ease the transition, but most of these are small. And, in truth, few former players are likely to snare one of the tiny handful of broadcasting jobs available -- the subject of one NFL transition program -- and only a limited number will have the chance to spend time at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where another of the programs is housed.
Many players might do better finding another role that would allow them to use their skills and experience -- especially working in football, whether coaching or on the business side. Unfortunately, as longtime former league executive Jim Steeg has pointed out, the NFL's own rules ironically make this difficult, because teams are prohibited from employing their own players in other roles during the off-season.
I'm not suggesting that we shed a lot of tears for young men who work in a field where the minimum salary for a rookie drafted in the final round is $2.2 million over four years, and the median veteran salary is well up in the seven figures. But let's remember that the minimum salary isn't guaranteed, except for $50,000 paid in the first year, and very few players stay in the league long enough to reach seven figures.
The NFL makes a lot of money through the efforts of young people who have trained their entire lives for this single job. I'm not suggesting that they're underpaid. But I do think, even as we celebrate the start of a new season, that the league should give thought to what more it might do to ease their transition into what I suppose we should still think of as the real world.
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