Numberscruncher: Football and Finances

Written by Current Events, Numberscruncher

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It’s been a bad time for NFL quarterbacks. Bernie Kosar, who played for the Browns, Cowboys, and Dolphins, filed for bankruptcy.  Ryan Leaf, who played for the San Diego Chargers followed by brief stints with the Cowboys and Seahawks, was arrested for trying to flee the country to avoid facing charges of burglary and obtaining controlled substances: painkillers. And Steve McNair of the Titans and a team formerly known as the Cleveland Browns was found shot by a gun that had been purchased by his 20-year-old girlfriend — who was also shot.

The pro-athlete-gone-bad story is almost as trite as dog-bites-man, but each new case hits the headlines. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, maybe it’s human interest. After all, there is no male more alpha in American culture than an NFL quarterback. These people work unbelievably hard and get hit more times than anyone should, but they also have been on top in high school (dating the prettiest girls, getting a nod and a wink from teachers at test time), in college (provided with professional women, attending special classes with special tutors), and then in life. They were groomed for two things: football and stardom.

Contrary to the stereotype, most college athletes are not spoiled, because most college athletes are playing in non-revenue sports. Division I field hockey isn’t a hotbed of recruiting corruption, and there are few cheating scandals in Division II football. Even at Division I, the only football or men’s basketball players likely to go pro are those who are the stars of programs ranked in the Top 20. The NFL drafts 256 college players each year.  Ohio State alone has a roster of 103 players.  The very few who get into the NFL, who play more than one season in the NFL, or who get to start on a Sunday afternoon are the summa cum alpha of the alpha world.

And they tend to be unprepared for anything else. The collegiate gymnast knows that she will have to do something else upon graduation; the closest line of work to her sport would be coaching. The basketball player whose team doesn’t make March Madness might be able to play in Europe for a year or two, and he’s probably thinking of ways to use that experience to get himself a job in sales at a multinational company when his career ends.

The NFL Players Association represents current and retired NFL players, and it offers a lot of sobering statistics. The organization’s agenda is to get more money and benefits for players over the course of their lifetimes, not just their careers.  The average NFL salary is $1.1 million per year, but the minimum is just $193,000. Now, $193,000 is a fabulous salary for a 22-year-old, but consider that the average NFL player works in the business for just over three seasons. Then what? If you are a retired star, you might to get to do a NutriSystem commercial or two. Broadcasting is an option, if Terry Bradshaw ever retires, although you have to be able to string words into grammatically understandable sentences. And then there’s business. You can buy franchises or real estate, but the skills involved in managing those are complex. Sports Illustrated estimates that 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or close to it two years after retirement.That’s a tough break for a 28-year-old with few job skills. Throw in a few head injuries, a love of the pain medications that made going to work possible, and friends and relatives who assume you have mega-bucks and can help them out just this once, and it’s a mess.

I teach part-time in an MBA program at a university with a Division I basketball program. Almost every semester, I have one or two athletes in class, working through their scholarships. Maybe it’s a woman on the track team who wants to go into hospital administration, maybe a man who plays basketball who is thinking about what will happen after playing in his last conference championship.  One of my lectures discusses pro sports, because there are some nifty applications of the net present value rule for managing salary caps and providing post-career income for players. Harvard even has a case on salary negotiations between the Texas Rangers and Alex Rodriguez.  Unfortunately, the students who most need to learn about it are those alpha male star quarterbacks who think they are above it all, and who can’t qualify for MBA admission anyway.

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