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

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 10:32 AM

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, 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.


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."

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