NFL Players Won’t Go Bankrupt If They Follow These 3 Tips

April 27, 2016, 3:14 PM UTC
Photograph by Leon Halip — Getty Images

Every year, the National Football League draft makes a number of strapping young men very, very rich.

Enjoy the moment, lads. But a word of advice from former NFL stars: Start thinking about your next career right away.

“As an athlete, your body is your company – and you’re a depreciating asset,” said Israel Idonije, a former defensive end with the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions for more than a decade, starting in 2003. “That’s why it’s important to lay a foundation for life after football, while you’re still in the league.”

That is exactly what Idonije did, buying a company that supplies communion cups to churches around the world, while he was still suiting up for the Bears. During his last few years in the league, when Idonjie was making the veteran’s minimum salary, he was actually bringing in more cash via his side gig.

When he eventually retired in 2015, “I took off my cleats and stepped into the business the next day, because I’d been doing it the whole time,” he said.

Pro athletes, notorious for blowing through millions of dollars, should take note. The average NFL career is a scant 3-1/2 years. Waste millions on fancy cars and lavish homes and your retirement future is bleak. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 16 percent of drafted players filed for bankruptcy in the dozen years following retirement.

“These guys don’t realize how quickly doors close, after they stop playing,” says Ed Butowsky, a Dallas wealth manager with Chapwood Investments who handles money for many professional athletes.

For the young men who will make the first round of the 2016 NFL draft, and for anyone who might hit it big for a short amount of time, here a few tips about how to prepare for the long game:

1. Leverage your access

Pretty much anyone in the country will pick up the phone and agree to a meeting with you if you are a professional sports player. The people you want to call are CEOs with the ability to hire people with the snap of the finger, said Butowsky. In the basketball world they are called “Front-Row People”; in football they are referred to as “Suite People.”

Once you are out of the league, that kind of universal access goes away – so strike while the iron is hot.

“If you call up a CEO and say, ‘I play for the Atlanta Falcons, and I’d love to buy you lunch and learn about your business’ – you don’t think that would go a long way?” Butowsky said.

2. Train for the next stage

The NFL holds a “Broadcast Boot Camp” for pros interested in cultivating careers as anchors and analysts. One of those who has taken advantage is former Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets offensive-line stalwart Willie Colon.

“They do a remarkable job of putting you around the cream of the crop in the business, like James Brown of CBS,” said Colon, a 6’3,” 320 lb (145 kg) gentle giant, who is rehabbing his knee and working as a studio analyst for SNY network. “But there are no shortcuts. If you’re not working hard and staying up on topics, then you’re going to lose. I’m reading more than I ever have in my life.”

The NFL Players Association also runs an organization called The Trust, devoted to helping ex-NFLers with the challenging post-football transition.

3. Get a running start

Even when Israel Idonije was still putting on his pads for the Bears, he devoted a portion of his week to learning his new business. Every NFL player gets one day off a week, and Idonije earmarked a couple of hours of that day to his side hustle.

But beware of putting your own money in the first thing that comes along. Investing in ill-advised, private businesses is the “No. 1 reason players go broke,” said Butowsky.

After all, crooks take one look at young, naive millionaires who lack financial education and get dollar signs in their eyes.

Better to put that NFL salary into an index fund and lock the key. “Eventually you will reach the point where your body can’t take it, or your heart just isn’t in it anymore,” said Colon. “And then you want to have that Plan B ready to go.”