The blue-green paper downpour never ceased during the on-field celebration following Seattle’s 43-8 rout of Denver in Sunday night’s Super Bowl. It was there after the final whistle sounded, and it was there when owner Paul Allen hoisted his trophy.
Could you blame a player for thinking the confetti would never stop?
But the NFL is a brutal league, characterized by brief careers with swift endings. Ninety players dressed for Super Bowl XLVII a year ago; eleven of them never played another snap. If a player doesn’t know better, someday he will.
Which is why, on the Saturday afternoon before the Super Bowl, the league offered its benediction by way of branding to a career-networking event for players. In attendance at the Player Networking Event at an expo hall in Harlem—75 blocks north of the rest of the week’s spectacle—where a handful of businesses and vendors, union officials and retired players, all attempting to turn pro football’s ugly sausage-factory image into something a little warmer. Even the NFL Players Choir turned up to croon “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The players’ central business problem is the massive gulf between the NFL’s well-off classes and its poorest. The average career lasts a little over three years. Yet the average first-round pick’s career runs for over nine years, with sweeter annual compensation, too. For every Peyton Manning (career NFL salary: $217 million, plus countless more in endorsement deals) there are dozens of players who pull in a few hundred grand for a few years, if that.
Financial literacy and savoir-faire do not discriminate, especially among a workforce with its fair share of 23-year-olds flush with cash for the first time in their lives. Plenty of once-great football players see their gravy trains stop far short of their expected destinations. You can give your life to football, with all the bodily trauma that might entail, but football may have little use for you once it comes time to write the proper checks. And then what? What sort of union protects nearly $4 billion in annual payouts to a fairly small membership, and then watches as 78 percent of its onetime members face financial hardship within two years of retirement (as Sports Illustrated reported in 2009)?
One solution is money. The union set up two funds — the Professional Athletes Foundation, in 1990, with funding from player fines, and the Players’ Trust, in late 2013, with funding from the owners negotiated in the 2011 labor agreement — to provide former players with financial assistance, whether for vocational training, medical bills, or finishing college. Both organizations have seen encouraging results. Tyrone Allen, the manager of the Professional Athletes Foundation, says that he had 60 requests for assistance in January. And Bahati VanPelt, the executive director of the Trust, says that 400 former players came to his organization for assistance in the first two months of its existence.
But money goes only so far, Allen admitted. Former players naturally hesitate to take action. So the event had a moral mission, too. You wouldn’t immediately think it, for instance, but football players make model employees, and Allen and Co. are out to convince ex-players just that. And if you take your off-field responsibilities seriously, and get something out of your college education (NFL players are more likely to have degrees than the general population), and you begin networking during your pro career, however short it might be, you can plot your way to an enviable entrepreneur’s lifestyle. They call this transitioning—trade in your chinstraps for bootstraps!
Ben Troupe, who played for the Titans and Buccaneers from 2004 until 2008 and now hosts a sports-radio show in Nashville, says it’s not so hard. “The only difference between me and any other player is that I’m not afraid to look like a fool. Any player who can cash checks can break his behind and work. Real talk!”
Rod Trafford, a tight end who played parts of seasons from 2003 until 2006 with the Patriots, Bills, Eagles and Rams, transitioned easily enough after playing. He took a job in sales at Xenith, a start-up helmet manufacturer, and soon rose to regional sales manager. Now he’s picking between job offers from two other start-ups.
But Spencer Tillman, the former 49er and Oiler who is now the lead analyst for CBS’s College Football Today, worries that generational shiftlessness will thwart such success in the future. One night, after a workout in Los Angeles, he pulled his car up to a Subway near closing time. He saw just one sandwich artist on duty. But when the Subway employee saw Tillman’s headlights, he ducked into the back of the store. He didn’t return—Tillman timed him—for 14 and a half minutes. And when Tillman then asked him, through the store’s front window, to produce a sandwich, the kid mouthed back, “We’re closed.” No sandwich, and the clock hadn’t even struck 10 yet. Upon finishing his parable, Tillman shook his head. “It’s millennials as a cohort. If every one of those kids, in every one of America’s 26,000 Subway stores, makes me a sandwich, instead of closing the store down, we have the power to move GDP.” Alas.
For now, none of Tillman’s colleagues is thinking on such a grand scale. Allen and VanPelt, the union representatives, just want more players to access the benefits their programs offer. They want better medical care for the union’s onetime members, and they want increased financial literacy for everyone. Marquay Baul, a private banker for a number of Denver Broncos players, just tells his clients to be careful with the chunks of their money allotted for risky ventures. “And if they hear the words ‘investment opportunity’ alongside the words ‘club in Miami’? Run away as fast as you can.”