When NFL owners read the opposing defense, they see an obvious soft spot in the line: the free-spending, high-living ways of more than 20 percent of the league’s players.
Though a lockout has been threatened for years — and despite an apparent rise in the number of football stars safeguarding their millions — roughly 380 of the NFL's near 1,700 players still live paycheck to paycheck, according to financial experts familiar with the league.
“Therein lies the leverage these owners have to potentially use as an excuse to force the Players Association … to sneeze first,” said Reggie Wilkes, a 10-year NFL linebacker and now a financial adviser who preaches “lifestyle management” to more than 20 NFL clients. “If (union chief) DeMaurice Smith doesn’t have guys saving their money, it’s going to be difficult for them to withstand a potential lockout.”
Many players are "going to be hurting," agreed New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, 30, a Wilkes client. Scott, who stands to earn, or lose, $6 million next season, is frugal by NFL standards, driving his 2002 Lincoln Navigator “into the ground” and purchasing a $700,000 home — relatively modest by football star standards. Scott said some “young guys” in his locker room “see what the older guys have, and they’re not there yet. They’re trying to catch up and keep up with the Joneses” by buying $2 million mansions.
There is a wide variation in NFL players’ salaries. The average player salary for the 2009-10 season using USA Today's numbers is $1,870,998. But the number isn't particularly meaningful since superstars can earn far more and second- or third-stringers far less. The league rookie minimum salary is $320,000.
Barring a late agreement between the union and owners, players could be locked out of NFL facilities as soon as Friday.
To bolster solidarity — and, as Scott says, to “protect the players from themselves” — the NFL Players Association has been urging its members to stockpile cash for two years. The association also withheld union dues and royalty checks to build an emergency fund that will pay members about $60,000 each over the course of next season if their game checks stop coming, said players association spokesman George Atallah.
Many players have, indeed, heeded the union’s warnings by hiring money managers, sticking to precise monthly budgets, living with roommates, and postponing big buys (new homes) — or even small ones (new neckties), said several NFL players and their accountants.
Perhaps it’s the fear of going months without pay, or maybe it’s the notoriously high bankruptcy rate among retired NFL players — estimated at nearly 80 percent by Sports Illustrated — but “athletes are really starting to buckle down a lot more than they did 10 years ago,” said Steve Piascik, president of Piascik & Associates, a Richmond, Va.-based tax adviser to about 65 NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players.
“They are taking more responsibility,” said Piascik, who added 12 pro clients — most from the NFL — in just the past six weeks. “The rookies, especially, are more aware of the situation and they’re trying to protect themselves. Boom, they see (ex-NFL players) going through financial scandals and they’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.”
Many NFL stars have made headlines because of their financial problems.
Luther Elliss, who earned $11.6 million with the Detroit Lions from 2000 to 2004, filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and has recently relied on friends and local churches to pay his bills. Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who pulled in an estimated $18 million during a 10-year career, lost much of it through bad investments. Mark Brunell, now a New York Jets backup quarterback, filed for bankruptcy in June 2010 despite contracts that paid him $50 million during his career.
These high-profile cases are one reason for open concerns among some fiscally conservative players that their lavish-living teammates will become a weak link for a union that aims to hold out for gains in its collective bargaining agreement.
Piascik figures he spends “a good 25 percent” of his time steering pro clients away from too many flashy toys — “cars and jewelry” — and often from family and friends who press the players for gifts, loans or investments in risky ventures. Piascik said he willingly takes on the role of “the bad guy.”
If his players max out their planned budgets and ask Piascik for extra cash, he said his pat answer is: “No! No! My job is to make sure that when your career’s over, you’re financially set.” He even cut ties with one NFL rookie who insisted — against Piascik’s advice — on buying his mother a $2.1 million home.
“A lot of people say you can’t bring your money to the grave. But there’s also a point where you’ve got to be conservative and set your savings up,” said Sabby Piscitelli, a Cleveland Browns safety and one of Piascik’s clients. According to Fox Sports, Piscitelli earns about $770,000 per season. “I remember my grandpa always told me: ‘The first bill you always pay is your savings account.’ ”
Piscitelli, 27, recently sold one car and opted to wait at least a year to purchase a property in south Florida – moves made, in part, to prepare for the possible lockout.
Other players have drawn up monthly budgets to control cash flow on everything from groceries and clothing to mortgage or rent, said Wilkes, the linebacker turned financial adviser.
“Most guys are just like I was. I mean, you’re not really focused on this (as a young player). It takes a couple of years for a light to go off. It’s about the adviser constantly beating it into them on a monthly basis. Not on a six-month basis. Not every year. It’s every month. It has to be a recurring theme,” said Wilkes, vice president of the Wilkes Group in Wayne, Pa. He spent most of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“They get tired of it. They get pissed off. Sometimes they hang up on me,” Wilkes added.
In his first conversations with NFL clients, Wilkes always broaches the topic of retirement to get them mulling that eventuality. He sends his players cash-flow reports every 30 days to record — or correct — spending habits. And he said he helps them move “a certain percentage of their assets” into an emergency fund meant to provide them with a three-year cash reserve.
Such steps, Wilkes believes, help players survive during and after NFL careers that, on average, last just 3.3 seasons.
Despite that typically short taste of pro ball, more than 20 percent of NFL players live check to check and fail to put money into savings, both Wilkes and Piascik estimated.
For that fast-living slice of the league, “there’s going to be a shock factor” if the lockout interrupts their income, Piascik said.
“It could be trouble for them,” agreed Cleveland safety Piscitelli. If salaries are held up for a full season, he expects unprepared players to “start selling off stuff, liquidating stuff, like the properties they have.”
Scott, the Jets veteran, will not be that weak link. He said years of financial planning will allow him to comfortably survive at least a year without pay.
“Some players never see the end (of their careers),” Scott said. “I just wanted to start preparing for the end. … I’m all set no matter what — lockout, no lockout. Understand, I stand to lose $6 million in salary next year if there is a work stoppage. But I’m prepared to lose $6 million if that’s what I have to do.”
Through his work with Wilkes, Scott said he will have his home, cars and the educations of his two children paid off in full this year. He plans to eventually walk away from the NFL debt-free.
“I learned something a long time ago from Steve Bisciotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens. He said, ‘You can live like a king for a while, or you can live like a prince forever.’ I’m satisfied with living like a prince forever.”
Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com and author of “The Third Miracle.”