How Does an NFL Player Manage to Go Broke?

How can an NFL player go broke? originally appeared on Quorathe knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Matthew Gordon, former feature columnist for, on Quora:

There are any number of reasons a professional athlete might go broke, most of which also apply to any non-athlete in the USA. Let’s look at the NFL for an example:

The NFL minimum salary is $450,000 per year for a rookie. Most NFL players make the minimum salary, because there are far more guys who rotate through practice squads than who make the billboards.

The average length of career in the NFL is 3.3 years.

Given that minimum salary rises with years played, and the NFL itself disputes the 3.3 year claim, let’s adjust upward a little and say that a minimum-salary player who has an average-length career makes a total of $2 million in his NFL career. That’s substantially less than Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees make per home game, of course. Not all NFL players are paid equally.

By comparison, the average American worker makes a lifetime total of $1.8 million. That number looks low to me, but it describes “three decades” and I imagine most people work four decades, so that explains the discrepancy perfectly. I picked the average for college graduates because hey, hypothetically, NFL players went to college.

The important thing here is that a minimum-salaried NFL career doesn’t pay much more than an average career.

Surely, retired (and I mean “retired” very loosely, as it’s easy to be forcibly retired from the NFL at age 26) NFL players can just go work those average jobs while socking away all their NFL money, right?

Well, sure, if they have the academic knowledge and the medical health. Neither is a given.

Medical problems

Taxes and fees

  • NFL players are always in the top tax bracket. That means that even if an NFL career has the same gross payout as a non-NFL career, the NFL player pays more in income tax. Obviously, residing in a no-state-income-tax state helps here somewhat.
  • The NFL standard is that the agent takes a 3% cut of the contract. Small, yes, but we’re dealing with a lot of money here.
  • The average NFL player is probably paying more money to accountants, financial planners, and other professionals than the average American. This is still relatively small money compared to that $2 million, but it adds up.

Social situation

  • Anyone who comes into a lot of money in a short period of time is a target for everyone from old friends who want a helping hand to scammers. Pro athletes are sometimes compared to lottery winners in this way.
  • In terms of the ability to succeed in a traditional career, the NFL is a cross-section. Without the NFL as an option, some players would have been highly successful and others wouldn’t have been. Some retired NFL players were going to be broke no matter what happened, and the NFL career only slowed down the process.

To those boiling NFL player bankruptcies down to bad money management or plain old stupidity, would you do that with everyone else who goes broke? Especially if they go broke because of medical bills? Just something to think about.

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