You’d think being a pro football player would be living the dream. Look at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with his five Super Bowl rings, supermodel wife, and adorable kids. Or at cornerback Richard Sherman, with his appealing combination of brains, brawn, and brashness.
But life in the National Football League is not all sunshine and lollipops. In fact, there are a lot of things that are pretty bad about playing in the NFL, starting with the chronic pain and high likelihood of head injury that players face. Here are some other ones that show that life on the gridiron isn’t all about glory.
Most NFL players have an incredibly short career
The odds are tough if you want to make it into the NFL. Only 0.2 percent of high school football players and just 1.5 percent of college football players make it on an NFL roster at all. And the average career length is even shorter than you can imagine—just 2.66 years.
According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, this career length has dropped around 2.5 years from 2008 to 2014. The Journal crunched numbers from Pro Football Reference to determine that offensive linemen have the longest average career at 3.75 years, with wide receivers the shortest, at 2 years and 2.5 months. The average quarterback lasts 3 years and 1 month. To put these numbers in perspective against other pro sports, the average Major League Baseball career is 5.6 years. That’s also the average National Hockey League career, and the average National Basketball League career is 4.8 years.
That’s not much bang for the buck when it comes to being a pro football player. In some cases, football players have been playing their sport since way before high school. Pop Warner has football leagues for kids that start at age 5. So imagine working at job training for many years and being at the top of one’s field, only to have it over in a flash. That’s the harsh reality of life in the NFL.
Football players make less money than other pro athletes
Legendary quarterback Peyton Manning may have made $400 million in his long-running career, with $249 million of that as NFL salary, according to Forbes, but he was the exception. Not only do most NFL careers end very quickly, but the players make less than their counterparts in baseball, basketball, and even hockey. According to statistics from Forbes, the average NFL player makes $2.1 million, while the average NBA player makes $6.2 million and the average MLB player makes $4.4 million. Even the average NHL player, in a sport much less popular than football, makes $2.9 million.
The league minimum in the NFL is also lower than the other leagues. Granted, part of this has to do with the size of rosters in each league. At 53 players, the NFL has the biggest roster, with MLB at 25 players, the NHL at 23 players, and the NBA at 15 players. It also has to do with the players in the NFL not having a strong union.
The NFL Players Association says that the average NFL player ends up with about $4 million in his career, according to CNBC, which sounds like a lot before you figure in taxes and expenses. It also means that player literally risk their lives and future health for a paycheck, and not even as good a paycheck as they can get in other leagues.
Most players don't have fully guaranteed contracts
When Texas Rangers first baseman Prince Fielder’s career was cut short in 2016 due to a neck injury, the team (and the team’s insurance policy) will pay the rest of the $106 million owed on the contract. And even scrubs who are cut before the end of their contract will get paid for the rest. That’s not the case in the NFL. Many players who get injured or cut in the league simply will not get paid for it.
It is very hard for even star players to get fully guaranteed contracts. For example, the Baltimore Sun reports that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton signed a $118.5 million contract and Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco signed a $120.6 million contract. The paper said that “Newton got a $22.5 million signing bonus,” with $60 million guaranteed with a $10 million option bonus,” while “Flacco’s deal included a $29 million signing bonus and $51 million guaranteed.” So whenever you see big numbers thrown around, take them with a grain—make that a shaker—of salt.
There are a variety of reasons for this situation: a weak union, more players in the NFL, players are more replaceable than in other sports, the salary cap that baseball does not have, but the bottom line is the player can potentially get on the unemployment line with no more money coming.
They don't have a minor league system anymore
The vast majority of MLB players spend years in the minor leagues working on their craft until they get to the big leagues, and they can get sent down if they’re not quite ready for prime time. While many NBA players go straight from college to the league, 30 percent of them played in the NBA Development League. The NHL also has a minor league hockey system. Unfortunately for football players, there are no minor leagues for them.
For players who don’t get drafted from college, there’s no easy way to hone their skills so that they can make it in the NFL. And for players who do get drafted, but find out they are not quite ready, they won’t have a way of developing those talents. The same goes for injured and released players who want to find their way back.
There used to be an NFL Europe league, where future NFL stars like Kurt Warner, Adam Vinatieri, and Jon Kitna got a chance before going to the NFL. But it went out of business in 2007. Today, there’s no such developmental league, although the NFL has kicked the idea around.
NFL rookies face terrible hazing
Thr MLB was so concerned about the relatively harmless tradition of rookies sometimes having to dress in female costumes on one day each year that they banned the practice. Meanwhile, the NFL mostly looks the other way when it comes to the crazy hazing that happens in their league. Richie Incognito’s infamous harassment of Jonathan Martin on the Miami Dolphins is an extreme example, but there are plenty of other bad things that happen to players.
Rookies may have to get horrible haircuts, including having their hair shaved into the shape of a penis, as the Jacksonville Jaguars did in 2010. Then there are costlier indignities that rookies might suffer, including getting stuck with five-figure restaurant and bar tabs, like what happened to Houston Texans rookie K. J. Dillion in 2016. He went to dinner with members of the team and only ordered a $13 Caesar salad. He had to pay the $16,255.20 tab, which didn’t include the tip. That’s what also happened to Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant, who refused to carry Roy Williams’ shoulder pads in 2010 when he was a rookie. Williams extracted revenge by making him pay $54,896 for the offensive line’s dinner bill.
What sometimes happens in hazing is that those who were tortured go after the next generation. Happily, Bryant told TMZ in 2016 that they don’t do such hazing in Dallas anymore. (Of course, he doesn’t do anything in Dallas anymore.)
Some teams have to stay in dorms during training camp
A college dormitory room is a cramped, uncomfortable place to be for college student. Imagine if you are an NFL lineman having to squeeze onto one of those beds. That’s what still happens with many football teams during summer training camp. The teams go to dinky little towns and have the players stay in college dorms with tiny rooms and tinier beds. Not fun. It’s like they’re back in college again and is supposed to build cohesiveness and camaraderie, but it sounds pretty miserable.
And in the case of the Kansas City Chiefs, the players can’t even rely on having a bed. Mitch Reynolds, the Chiefs executive who organizes the training camp at Missouri Western State University, explained to Chiefs.com, “We don’t baby them very much. It’s as simple as it gets.” He said that “they get a desk, a dresser, and two beds pushed together. And if they want to rent a mattress, if they want to get a TV, they know how to do it.” Since when is having an actual bed to sleep in babying a player?
Fortunately for NFL players, more teams these days are holding training camps at their regular season locales. By putting the players up in local hotels, they get the benefits from a lack of distractions, without the discomfort of the dorms.
The culture of conformity is stifling
It seems like only some NFL players can show a personality, and even then, it’s limited. And they’d better not state their political views, or they will pay a price. As of this writing, Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is having a hard time finding a new job because of his (non)stance on the National Anthem during the 2016 season.
A player, especially a quarterback, who shows anything non-vanilla from the beginning may never get a chance to prove himself. Even proven quarterbacks, like Cam Newton, face consequences for things as trivial as not wearing a tie on a team flight or criticism for his dabbing.
Players are spied on before the NFL draft
Drafting a player is a big investment for a NFL team, so they want to make sure they make the right decision. Other sports have drafts, but the NFL is the most notorious for probing into players’ private lives and families’ private lives. They hire private investigators and do background checks to vet players.
In some ways, this is understandable. If a player commits a crime, or is gets caught up in other unsavory behavior, this will reflect poorly on the team, especially if they knew beforehand. Look at how Aaron Hernandez tainted the New England Patriots when he allegedly committed multiple murders. One scouting report from an anonymous team described him this way before the draft: “Self-esteem is quite low. Not well-adjusted emotionally, not happy, moods unpredictable, not stable, doesn’t take much to set him off, but not an especially jumpy guy.” Now team personnel have to worry that if they don’t take players’ personality issues seriously, it can have terrible consequences.
And sometimes, the probing can bite the team in a different way. Like when the news broke that Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland asked Dez Bryant in a 2010 pre-draft interview whether Bryant’s mother was a prostitute.
Is it worth it to be an NFL player?
Newsday interviewed 763 ex-NFL players for a 2015 report called “Life After Football.” The players talked of the physical toll the game took on them, as well as all the issues ex-athletes face, including financial and marital problems.
Eighty-nine percent of them said they’d still do it all over again, despite all the many negative things about the game. That says something for the power and the hold football has on its players.
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