Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

No matter what happens in NFL labor negotiations, the players pay the price

From the exasperated fan's perspective, the NFL labor negotiation looks like an argument between billionaires and millionaires. But the truth is, no matter how well the union bargains, most players will end up broke - and broken in body. With all the picketing and anti-union sentiment swirling around, it's tempting to view players as lacking serious grievances compared with, say, public school teachers in Wisconsin. But let's pause a moment and carve up their paychecks in real terms.

The average NFL player lasts just 3.3 seasons, and most of his salary, no matter how high on paper, isn't guaranteed. The league minimum for a rookie is $310,000, and the median league salary is just less than $800,000. That's wildly extravagant - isn't it? Let's see.

Sixty-three percent of all NFL players suffered at least one injury last year. The suicide rate among ex-NFL players is six times the national average, according to GamesOver.org, a Web site dedicated to helping former players adjust to retirement. A recent clinical survey found they are three times more likely than other men their age to abuse prescription medication.

Say a guy gets drafted and meets the average, plays for three and a half years. Let's be generous and award him the median salary. He should walk away with at least a cool $2.4 million.

Right?

Hold on. Three percent off the top goes to his agent. Slice off another 40 percent because he's in the highest tax bracket. So there goes 43 cents on the dollar.

He also has to pay a financial adviser, and he's got legal fees.

He needs a specialized personal trainer, too, because his body is his living, plus training equipment, nutritional supplements, and a good computer to study game tape on, all at peril of being judged overpaid.

Some of this he can write off, if he remembers to keep the receipts, but the IRS tends to be strict and audits about 20 percent of all NFL players - perhaps because they're reportedly so overpaid.

A job in the NFL is not a Hallmark card, and it's not nearly as secure as most union jobs. It's a grinding, dangerous, painful, short-lived pursuit, so abbreviated that it hardly qualifies as a profession in the way the rest of us define the word, and it comes at a heavy, heavy cost.

Whenever you're tempted to yell at a player to try working for living, or to go dig a ditch, remember that by age 50 he may not be able to.

"When we think about a union job, usually they work 25 or 30 years," says John Hogan, an Atlanta-based attorney who represents NFL players in disability cases. "Although in the public sector it's been abused a bit, when you think about a good job with a union you're set for life with pension and disability. And that's where the players' union comes up short, in light of the fact that they play such a brutal game. I just think they haven't shown the leadership of fully providing for you for your lifetime, not just a few years."

The unfortunate truth is for all of their skirmishing, neither the owners nor the NFLPA are serving the longtime interests of players particularly well. Both the union and owners have concentrated their public statements on the league's $9.3 billion in revenue, and how to split it.

There has been less attention devoted to the so-called smaller issue of health care. There are rumors that the union may ask for the health care plan to be extended from five years to 10 years.

But that's still inadequate, according to Hogan.

"I almost think that's worse because a lot of the disabilities we see manifest themselves 10 to 15 years after you stop playing, the cognitive, and the degenerative. Five years doesn't cover it, and extending it to 10 doesn't cover it. And 10 years out, they're probably liable to be less insurable. I'd like to see some sort of lifetime medical for their football-related problems."

While NFL owners and players were haggling over pay cuts and revenues with a federal mediator this week, a former Super Bowl champion named Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest to save his concussed brain for science, and by the way, he died bankrupt too.

Duerson was not some overpaid deadbeat or goldbricker. He was a four-time Pro Bowler, a Notre Dame grad with an economics degree, and the Walter Payton Man of the Year. He should have been one of the league's most successful alums. How could such a thing happen?

Duerson's circumstances were not unlike those described above. After he retired from the NFL he started a food business that was a success for a while, but then went south.

A lawsuit he won never paid off. He owed the IRS $47,000 in back taxes, another $70,000 in a divorce settlement, and $9 million on a business loan. Last year, he made just $16,800, and he feared he might have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the concussion-related disease.

While we can't know exactly what drove Duerson to take his life, we can assume he was in both physical and psychological pain.

Recently researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis released the results of interviews with 644 former players who played in the league between 1979 and 2006, who averaged 48 years in age. The survey found 93 percent of them suffered some level of pain, and 73 percent described that pain as moderate to severe.

This is not just a player concern. It concerns all fans, because as taxpayers we are all taking on the cost of medical care for ex-players who can't get health insurance, because they are forced to turn to Medicare.

With pre-existing conditions that were more than likely inflicted by football, a majority of them are uninsurable.

When a player needs spinal surgery, or a hip replacement, taxpayers are picking up the tab.

So maybe it would be better for us if they really were overpaid.

 
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