Former USC and 49ers football star Riki Ellison told me almost all NFL players grow up poor because, “it is so brutal that unless it is your only way out of poverty, it is not worth it.” While the average person will not cry for a the average NFL player pulling in $6.6 million during his 3.5 year career, the fact is those players are making less than half what other athletes make with many more long-term health costs and are living 20 years less than the average American.
The NFL Players Association shifted $100 million from players’ pensions to a Harvard Research Study to try to prevent careers and lives seemed a good adjustment, and the NFL has chipped in by adding Sideline Neurological Consultants for next season.
Riki Ellison is the exception. He did not grow up in poverty, and after his NCAA National Championship and three Superbowls playing linebacker, he knew how to manage his money and built a second career as head of the conservative Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Because most players in major sports come out of poverty, many do not know how to manage money during sports careers that last only about four years, and even among NBA players who earn the most average money during their careers, 60 percent are broke within a few years of their career ending.
The following are the average career earnings per sports career and the average earnings per non-sports career based on education level:
Average Career Earnings (based on average length of career and salary per year)
1. NBA player $24.7 million
2. Major League Baseball player $18.5 million
3. NHL Player $13.2 million
4. NFL Player $6.6 million
5. Professional degree, $4.4 million
6. Doctoral degree, $3.4 million
7. Master's degree $2.5 million
8. Bachelor's degree, $2.1 million
9. High school degree, $1.2 million
While the focus has been on head injuries, the $100-million study also will focus on how to help avoid injuries that can end careers. RG3 signed a $21-million guaranteed contract for his first four years before he played his first game, but unlike other sports, he is the exception and most NFL contracts are not guaranteed and end with the hundreds of career-ending injuries.
In addition to the study, 3500 former players are turning to trial lawyers in a massive suite over past injuries.
As staggering as the numbers are, each of the 3,500 former players suing would have to be awarded $300,000 each for this suit to cost the league $1 billion of the $9 billion in revenue it pulls in every year, so it could survive. And in this case, the Players Association obviously needs the league to survive.
This is not a case like the 50 states $200 billion take from the six major tobacco companies, the $11 billion suite by female workers at Wal-Mart, or the $7 billion settlement against Enron.