Roger Goodell recently took to the pulpit to debunk the popularly held notion that an NFL player's career lasts 3.5 years. The truth, Roger says, is that if you make an opening day roster as a rookie, your career will last almost six years; if you get drafted in the first round, it's nine years; and if you make a Pro Bowl, your career will last nearly 12 years.
This PR push by the NFL — a response to DeMaurice Smith's recent public attempts to shed light on what a typical career is like for an NFL athlete — is confusing to a former player like me: confusing, disingenuous, and ignorant. Confusing because it implies that the average NFL career, the average professional football existence, is comparable to the anomalous careers of Pro Bowlers and first-round draft picks. Disingenuous because it comes at a time when Goodell purports to care profoundly about the health of his players. Ignorant because it dismisses the thousands of athletes who sacrifice their minds and their bodies for a sport that keeps them hanging by a thread for years, shuffling them in and out of training camps and practice squads and never paying them full value for their services.
The reason the average NFL career length is 3.5 years is because for every Pro Bowler, there are maybe 10 players who sign contracts and never play a down for their team. They go through off-season conditioning, mini-camps, training camps, preseason games, then get cut the week before the season starts. They are told to stay in shape and be ready. We really like what you've done for us, and if someone gets hurt, we're definitely going to call you. So be ready! As we speak, there are hundreds of these men training in empty gyms, pushing themselves to the brink for an opportunity that may or may not come again. If it does come, they're thinking, I better be ready. So I won't be applying for another job. I won't be moving on with my life. I'll be working out and getting ready and watching the phone.
And if the phone does ring, it'll be because of an injury. The injured player needs to be replaced. He's done for a few weeks or maybe for the whole season. Either way, the team will sign someone else. (And when you sign someone, most often you have to cut someone.) Chances are, he is only around until the injured guy heals, then the new guy is back out on the bricks. Or, if the new guy makes a great impression, then he'll stick around and someone else will have to be cut. When you pay attention to the heavy attrition every week in the NFL, the substance of that 3.5 years starts to take shape.
This type of injury shuffle is a constant in the NFL. It's so routine that scouting departments have comprehensive lists of available players whom they can bring in with just a phone call. That's the life of an athlete on such a list: waiting by the phone.
When I was cut by the Broncos in early 2009, I became that guy. And for the next year and a half I remained that guy, training four hours every day, hovering in NFL limbo. My agent told me that teams were interested; I wasn't going to be caught off guard and out of shape. As training camps rolled around in 2009, and players started to get hurt, sure enough, I got some calls. I had workouts in Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Cleveland. They would fly me out on a half-day's notice, put me up in a hotel room for a night, and the next morning I had a workout for the team, along with three other guys flown in for the same reason. Immediately after the workout, we showered and were taken directly to the airport and dropped off at the curb. "We'll be in touch." I remember sitting on the flight home, dick in my hand, wondering what had just happened.
Cleveland, however, did call me back three days later and signed me. It was late in training camp, two preseason games remaining. I got there on a Monday night, practiced for three days, suited up but didn't play in the game Saturday night, and was cut Monday morning by an apologetic general manager. Every team has its grim reaper, a low-level assistant who has been given the job of telling a player that the GM needs to see him up in his office — oh, and bring your playbook. When I walked into the facility that Monday morning, I saw him standing there by the door, but I thought: "No way this is for me. I've been here for under a week." But two hours later, I was back on an airplane, dick back in hand. This was happening to me after a six-year career; the guys I was working out with were mostly a lot younger. I was on my way out; they were just trying to get in. That's what the NFL is.
For most guys, though, the phone doesn't ring. After all, there are 80 men in training camp and only 53 roster spots. Twenty-seven of those men will not be on the opening day roster. But should that take them out of the equation? Those athletes are the soul of training camp. They work harder than anyone for almost no money (players make about $400 a week during the offseason, slightly more during training camp). Players only get their salary if they make it to the regular season. During the seven months leading up to it, those players whom Roger Goodell dismisses as unworthy of consideration are used as punching bags. They lay their brains on the line, only to be cut in August and brought back the following offseason to do it all over again, only to be cut again. And they see only a sliver of that $9 billion revenue. What Goodell is saying, quite literally, is that these players don't count.
This is all part of a PR battle, and facts will inevitably get stretched to the breaking point in service of making an argument. But you have to wonder what motivates the league to lie to its fans about the typical experience of an NFL player? What could the NFL gain by giving fans the impression that players are rich and privileged and enjoy long, glorious, fulfilling careers? Why do they want you to think that? And what do you figure they're trying to paper over?
You're demagoguing the wrong issue here, Roger. Let's say the argument had any teeth, and let's even grant him his numbers. He says the average career lasts six years. A career lasts six years. If you are the very best in the business, your career will be shorter than 12 years. More likely, you'll be looking for a new line of work before you hit your 30s. And the commissioner is bragging about this?
The NFL establishment, having assembled a legal team that intends to strip players of the revenue they create, has also created a PR juggernaut that intends to discredit the athletes who have made them rich. It seems an odd approach, especially considering that at the end of all this, the owners will have to look these same players in the eye and establish something like a working relationship again. Or maybe that relationship is meaningless to NFL ownership. Maybe teams really do see their athletes as interchangeable cogs in a money-making machine. In any case, that's something to keep in mind the next time you see the league pimping out Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Through no fault of their own, the game's biggest stars are now serving involuntarily as a sort of red herring during negotiations. Close your eyes and imagine what life is like for players in the NFL. What do you see? A guy staring at his cell phone? Or Giselle?
Meanwhile, 52-year-old Roger Goodell is in his 29th year with the NFL. Now that's a career.