Sometimes, the percentage is higher; sometimes the amount of time after leaving the game is shorter. But the statements tend to be pretty consistent.
The most important point about this statistic is that it's wrong.
That's not to say that many former players don't struggle with their finances. After hearing this statistic bandied about, however, and having a healthy amount of skepticism, I decided to try to track down where it came from.
The first report I could find of the statistic appeared in USA Today in 2006:
But when the roars at Detroit's Ford Field fade and a new team is crowned champion, many of those NFL players will have played their last game in the pros.
Experts say a high percentage of those men will be thrust into the so-called real world with few marketable skills to increase their wealth and serious self-identity issues that often make the transition from the game a perilous one.
In fact, 78 percent of all NFL players are divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after leaving the game, according to Ken Ruettgers, a former player and current advocate for NFL players transitioning from professional sports. [Emphasis mine]
That word "or" makes the rest of the sentence a lot less shocking.
The divorce rate is high in this country anyway, so the fact that former players might get a divorce isn't earth-shattering news. And the fact that a player might be unemployed two years after leaving the game obscures the fact that some of them might not need to work for those two years.
You put all of those categories together, and it's no wonder that 78 percent of former players might find themselves included in at least one of them. I will say that the added context does speak to why NFL players would be wise to squeeze as much money they can out of their careers.
Imagine working for much of your childhood and your entire time in college to get a job that you may only keep for a year or two. Even if you are very successful, you still may only be able to keep the job for 10 years. That's what is considered a long career, generally, in the NFL.
Yes, you make a lot of money, but what do you do after that relatively short career is over? Especially when you usually don't have a choice as to when it does end?
It's easy to just say that NFL players should better prepare for life after football, because it implies there are plenty of options for them when they are done.
But many of these guys leave college without degrees. Even the guys with degrees have forgotten most of that material after three or five or seven years of professional football. Making tackles or catching touchdowns aren't considered transferable skills.
That's why the transition into another career isn't likely to be an easy one for many former players.
As for getting divorced, that along with child support are major reasons why a lot of former players eventually have money troubles as well. Many of them do not try to adjust whatever support they are paying to reflect the change in their income until long after they stop playing. It's understandable to want to be a stand-up guy, but it also can be ruinous to their finances.
"Well, they should just invest their money wisely," you say.
I agree with you here. Many NFL players spend way too much money on cars, clothes and jewelry while not putting enough away for retirement.
But how do you plan for a 50- or 60-year retirement? Most "regular" people retire from the career of their choice when they are in their sixties. NFL players are walking around as "retirees" at less than half that age.
Even if you earned tens of millions of dollars during your career, there is no guarantee that you won't outlive it. (It should be noted, however, that most former players have never been millionaires). This rings especially true if your spending habits don't immediately change after you leave the game.
Ponder for just a second that many NFL players take out a 25- or 30-year mortgage for a house, but their career might not make it past 10 seasons. That's 15 or 20 more years of mortgage payments scheduled when there won't be an NFL check coming in anymore.
Of course, they could pay cash and avoid decades of interest. This, however, goes back to the earlier point I made of never knowing when your career will be over. You spend cash for a house because you got a contract extension, then get cut or permanently injured six months later, and you're screwed.
Even when players do exactly what all the "smart" people advise them to do and invest their money instead of spending it on gaudy trinkets, disaster can still strike.
Many—maybe most—NFL players are not "savvy" investors. Therefore, they look for financial advisers to help them make decisions about what to do with their money. As we have seen with the Madoff scandal, however, even "savvy" investors can be taken advantage of, and many players are.
Then you have the guys who invest in real-estate deals.
When I was growing up, I always heard that real estate was the way to go, and that it was the safest investment on earth. After the market crashed and the real estate bubble burst in 2008, I don't think anybody is saying that anymore. Now you have former and even some current players who put a lot of their money in what appeared to be a sure thing, and it's all gone.
If they're still playing, they can try like hell to stay in the game for as long as they can to recoup that money, but nothing is guaranteed. What does the guy who has already retired and has no shot of getting back in do?
He goes broke; that's what.
Those are just the normal financial factors involved when players must seek to maximize their earnings potential while they are still in the NFL. When you factor in the long-term damage to your body as well as all the new research into CTE and the long-term damage to your brain, it becomes an even bigger deal.
Five years after being out of the NFL, you have to start paying for your own health insurance. Speaking from experience, that's also around the time your body starts to really fall apart. Unless you have a new job by then, you likely have to pay for insurance out of your own pocket—a very expensive proposition, indeed.
And even if you have transitioned into a new job, you may start to experience cognitive problems that will affect your ability to keep that job.
Knowing all of this, I think you would have to be crazy not to demand exactly what you're worth as a player. It's always going to be easy for NFL owners, who generally play hardball when it comes to their money, to make players look greedy to the team's fans.
But long after those fans stop cheering for those players, bills will still be coming due.
Many of those same fans who trash players who hold out for more money or leave in free agency for a better contract are the same ones who laugh and joke every time there's a new story about a former player in financial trouble. A player has to look out for his team on the field and himself off of it because no one else will.
I know that many fans will never understand why players scratch and claw for all the money they can while they're playing a "game." At the same time, I don't know of many CEOs or lawyers or doctors or accountants or media members that are all right with getting paid less than they are worth. And those people tend to have money coming in for much longer than NFL players.
This is why, while I respect the fans and I'm surely not talking about all of them, players simply can't take their feelings into account when pushing for a contract. At the end of the day, if the player gets his money and goes out and performs, nobody is going to complain anyway.
If they don't perform and people boo, well, just remember that they can't pay their bills with applause anyway.