NFL contracts require new paradigm in investing

Laura Biskupic Marketing Director
Laura Biskupic
Marketing Director

Former Indianapolis Colt Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas set a standard for NFL excellence during his record-setting 19-year career.

Sadly, he also ranks among the NFL elite for staggering financial collapse after he borrowed from the City of Baltimore and the state of Maryland to fund a circuit board manufacturing company that quickly failed. Unitas filed for bankruptcy, and launched a financial battle that lasted more than 10 years after his death.

Prior to his collapse, Unitas had invested in a string of a risky investments including a chain of bowling establishments, a prime-rib restaurant, an air-freight company and Florida real estate.

Unitas’ story of NFL success swiftly followed by financial collapse remains compelling both for its pathos and its


In 2009 Sports Illustrated published its landmark survey noting that 78 percent of former NFL players end up bankrupt or facing severe financial stress within two years of retirement from football, and in the six years since, things have not improved.

The roll call continues to astound: Terrell Owens, Warren Sapp, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Andre Rison, Bernie Kosar, Bart Scott, Tiki Barber, JaMarcus Russell, Mark Brunnell, Lawrence Taylor, Chris McAlister, Deuce McAllister, Vince Young, Sean Salisbury all filed for bankruptcy after lucrative careers.

So ubiquitous are the bankruptcy filings, that the NFL revamped its Rookie Symposium program in 2007 to focus on post-career success.

The NFL tries, but, according to former NFL player and Packer Hall of Fame member Kabeer Gbaja Biamila, that education only goes so far.

“The NFL does its best, but the rookie symposium is only for people who are drafted. It doesn’t include players who sign as free agents,” he said. “And then, the players who do attend aren’t always paying attention. They give them information but these guys are thinking, ‘This will never happen to me. My situation is different.’”

NFL players may understand the risk of getting hit on a cross-route, but they can’t always accurately assess investment risk. Many players only want to invest in things they can touch, like restaurants and car dealerships, two of the riskiest investments around.

“I remember a guy who got his first six digit check. Instead of cashing it, he kept it on the counter. He framed it. Just the fact that they could see a check with their name on it with all those zeros made him feel secure,” Gbaja-Biamila said. “That’s just the mentality. These guys are young, and, for them, making it into the NFL is like winning the lottery. They get all this money and they have no idea what to do with it.”

In some ways, these young players are no different than any investor struggling to find an appropriate place on the risk/reward spectrum.

Most retirees have spent a lifetime building a career in their chosen profession and have little experience with investments.

“I remember talking about this with my high school coach,” Gbaja-Biamila said. “He said, ‘What do you mean grow? Does it grow on trees? I need to see my money!’ It’s the same for retired business owners. All they knew was their business. They’re more business minded than investment minded and they don’t necessarily understand risk. Farmers, too. They’ll hold onto their land because that’s all they know. They don’t think it’s safe in the market and they prefer to invest in more land, or equipment, or whatever their producing.”

Reinvesting in a business isn’t wrong, but it can be limiting, especially in a world of increasing global investment accessibility. This new paradigm of investing offers a progressively broader range of options, and requires both education and a keen understanding of risk.

“The more educated you become about finance, the more comfortable you are with risk,” Gbaja Biamila said. “My own dad told me I should be investing in a business and I told him I am a business owner. I own stock in 50 different businesses. If you invest in a business because you want to see your name on it, or you want people to call you a CEO, you’re risking that entire investment because if that business fails, you’re going to lose everything. That’s the real risk. If you invest in the stock market, you can spread that risk around.”

“The way I invest and make money, it looks boring compared to having your name in lights,” he said. “I’m not a CEO. There’s not a lot of glamor in being an investor, but when you make money on your money, it feels good. There’s some excitement in beating those odds they tell you about in the rookie symposium.”