How Many NFL Players Go Bankrupt?


NFL players remain in the top tier of athletes making exorbitant salaries, sometimes shockingly high for a sport that runs barely over three months in the regular season. However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research says about 16 percent of retired football players go bankrupt within 12 years after hanging up their uniforms. The NFL Players Association in recent years has launched an effort to make financial education a priority. But is bad money management really the issue?

Players Filing for Bankruptcy Relative to Career Span

An interesting conclusion by the 2015 NBER study is initial bankruptcy filings by players start very soon after retiring, and continue at a substantial rate through at least the first 12 years of retirement. The conclusion is bankruptcy rates of players have no correlation to their total earnings, or how long they maintain their career on the field.

What Are the Causes?

There are various reasons why athletes manage to go bankrupt after earning millions of dollars. Poor financial education is an obvious underlying symptom, but expensive divorces and alimony, and even giving away money to family members are also common circumstances. Researchers behind the study suggest players pressure each other to spend lavishly and are extremely optimistic about how long they’re going to be able to keep playing.

Longtime NBA player and UK Assistant Coach Rod Strickland commented on the issue years ago, saying, “for rookies, it’s like an unspoken initiation” for players to spend beyond their means to impress their veteran peers. Sports agents say players are easy prey to financial advisers who lead them into bad investment deals, Ponzi schemes, and real estate ventures that prove disastrous. There are many stories of players bled dry by their money managers for years without the players knowing it.

Case in Point

Former defensive lineman and NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp is a good example of how an athlete with so much money ends up broke. Sapp made more than $82 million over his 12 years in the NFL until he retired in 2008, but five years later he filed for bankruptcy. Sapp claimed to be close to $7 million in debt from a bad real estate deal, alimony, and child support payments that were more than $74,000 a month. At the time, he was still making more than $115,000 a month in appearances and from his gig with the NFL Network. The network fired the 42-year-old former athlete in 2015 after he was arrested on charges of assault and solicitation of prostitution.