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Whether they earn the league minimum or a superstar's salary, football players have to know the basics of handling money to succeed financially.
NFL rookies received some lessons this week on how to manage their finances as part of the league's annual four-day rookie symposium at the La Costa resort in Carlsbad, Calif. The 252 draft picks, most of them fresh out of college, sat through a presentation from NFL sponsor Visa Inc. that reviewed the importance of saving part of what they earn and keeping track of their credit score.
Separately, the rookies learned about financial planning and hiring investment advisers who can help them navigate the inevitable "sure thing" opportunities that get touted by friends and acquaintances.
The goal is to help new players avoid the types of financial mistakes all too common among professional athletes. It's a message that's particularly important for football players, whose careers last on average just over three years. Sports Illustrated reported last year that 78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt, or are facing financial stress because of joblessness and divorce just two years after leaving the game.
"I think the assumption is that everybody who plays in the NFL is a millionaire," said Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, who promotes Visa's financial literacy efforts. "That's not the case at all."
The majority of players earn the league minimum $325,000 a year.
"You get that first check, you've never seen that much money in your life, especially at one time," said Brees, 31. One big danger is young players who try to keep up with the lifestyle of teammates with big contracts. "I see it all the time unfortunately," he said.
Among the rookies who stands to earn a bit more than the minimum is Sam Bradford, the top draft pick of 2010 out of Oklahoma University. Bradford, 22, has not yet signed a contract, but the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner is expected to get the sort of deal most of his teammates can only dream about.
Nevertheless, Bradford said the lesson using a budget based on a $325,000 salary was eye-opening. "Money is something that not a lot of people like to get into conversations about," he said. But the discussion made it clear that what sounds like a big paycheck can get burned through quickly. "Especially after paying taxes, paying your agent and finding a place to live."
The players were also reminded that there may be no paychecks at all next year. There is a possibility of a lockout in 2011 if management and the players' union don't reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
And every athlete must live with the potential for a career-ending injury. That's something Bradford knows about firsthand: he didn't play his junior year at Oklahoma because he was hurt. "You never know when an injury can happen and your career could be over," he said. "You're never guaranteed another dollar, so take care of the ones you have."
Jason Alderman, Visa's senior director of financial education, said the highlight of the sessions came when they played "Financial Football," a program the company uses to make financial literacy lessons more engaging. "These are competitive guys, they want to win anything," he said. "I saw one guy pick up his chair."
But the fun had a serious message. "It doesn't matter how much money you make or how talented you are," said Alderman, "if you don't manage your money wisely, you can run into the same trouble as anybody else."
Visa, an NFL sponsor since 1995, hopes that if NFL players spread the message about financial literacy, that will pique the interest of fans as well.
"When I was a kid I looked up to professional athletes," Brees said. "I think that we as professional athletes have to understand that we're all role models, whether we like it or not."