Not only was he the starter on a championship team, gaining 102 yards in the Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV victory over the New York Giants, but he almost chased down Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record in the 2003 season. In that same year, he ran for a then-NFL record 295 yards in a regular season game against the Cleveland Browns.
In many ways, he was on top of the world.
Now, just a few short years later, he’s hit rock bottom.
Lewis—who served four months in a federal prison back in 2005—filed for bankruptcy back in April and just recently had his hearing postponed until July.
According to a recent Associated Press report via ESPN, he owes $25 million in cash and asset debts, stemming largely from a series of failed investments.
That has to be a thought-provoking, even frightening bit of news to both the NFL and its players. Maybe not as thought-provoking or frightening as the debate on concussions and suicides, but an important one nonetheless.
NFL rookies should be the ones who pay the closest attention. Most of them have little-to-no experience dealing with the expectations, egos and money that surround the world of professional sports.
The obvious takeaway rookies should have from the likes Lewis, Mark Brunell (also reportedly broke), Terrell Owens (nearing bankruptcy), Warren Sapp (filed for bankruptcy) and the rest of the NFL's prodigal players is that they need to be careful with their money.
But that’s such an ambiguous concept. A rookie making $4 million a year should be allowed to buy a nice house and a nice car, but where is the line between nice and extravagant? Is the Maserati going too far? And if not the Maserati, how about the $25,000 Rolex?
Furthermore, think about a 22-year-old rookie coming into the NFL who is handed a five-figure game check. Practical as it may be, thinking about a post-NFL life is probably the last thing on his mind.
Like all professional athletes, NFL rookies are taught to be fearless and encouraged to think that they are bulletproof. There make it as far as they do by bruising through the middle or bullrushing a 350-pound tackle. Telling rookies not to be reckless with their money is not going to reach them.
That being said, there is one aspect of Lewis’ bankruptcy saga that rookies should be able to relate to, at least at a superficial level.
In addition to his dwindling cash flow, Lewis made even more trouble for himself by reportedly taking out a $600,000 loan from Regions bank (to buy a 47-foot power boat no less) and failing to pay it back, according to AL.com. Mark Brunell’s financial woes were also exacerbated by taking out a series of loans.
If nothing else, rookies can draw one simple lesson from these two: It’s bad to burn through all of your personal income and savings, but it is far worse to dig an even deeper hole by borrowing.
But is this a problem that can actually be solved? The answer is probably no.
People go bankrupt every day. Unlike the concussion controversy, Lewis’ story isn’t a football specific tragedy. It’s not like Lewis went bankrupt specifically because of his time spent in NFL.
Plenty of non-professional athletes borrow too much money, or blow through their paychecks without saving, and are forced to declare bankruptcy.
Still, even if some players ultimately squander their millions just like Lewis, rookies can at least be advised to avoid such mistakes.
The annual NFL rookie symposium usually addresses this issue. Last year, they had NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus (ironic since his most famous client is Terrell Owens) speak about finances and warn them that they aren’t making quite as much as they think they are.
That’s a start, but if Rosenhaus couldn't instill that mindset in T.O., it must not have been very convincing.
So what other solutions are there?
I suppose the NFL or individual teams could give rookies a stipend, rather than a salary, and automatically put a portion of their paychecks into a savings account that players cannot touch for "X" number of years.
Unfortunately, that practice would never be approved by the NFLPA, and it’s not terribly fair either. Players have the inalienable right to blow all of their money if they so choose.
How about negative reinforcement? The NFL could punish players who make foolish financial decisions and spend all of their money on oversized mansions and fancy cars.
For one, that would also be impossible to pass in a collective bargaining agreement. Secondly, how would that even be regulated? A player receives an unpaid suspension for buying a $1 million sports car instead of putting it in a 401(k)?
And besides, doesn’t the NFL punish players enough? Again, wasting money is not a crime.
No, a better way to try and prevent rookies from joining the ranks of Lewis, Brunell, Owens and Sapp is to be straightforward, and if need be, callous with its rookies. Recruit as many former NFL stars like Lewis to the symposium and have them say “Don’t be like me. The last thing you want after a shortened career in which you sacrificed your health is to have nothing in the bank to show for it.”
While that message may only reach a player or two, it is definitely more effective than the alternatives.
On a side note, anyone who says “paying players in college will really teach incoming rookies to budget their money” is being woefully naïve. Not only would those stipends be pennies compared to NFL salaries, but they would be subsidizing personal lives.
Meals and housing are already covered by scholarships. It is a real stretch to assume that money-management skills attained at the college level would translate to the “adult” life of an NFL superstar.
So there really might not be much else to actively address the problem.
As hard as it might be for the league, the teams, the fans and the media to accept, we will just have to cross our fingers and hope that incoming rookies make good decisions on their own. We can’t police everything.
Given how many players out there (Justin Blackmon and Nick Fairley being the two most recent examples) actually need to be disciplined and monitored like little children, players who let their money burn a hole in their pockets are far down on the priorities list.
And considering those types of cases involve actual crimes, Roger “The Executioner” Goodell’s time is better spent putting out those fires.