“The highest-paid player on an NFL team is the quarterback. What you probably don’t know is the second highest-paid player is the left tackle. This is because the left tackle’s job is to protect the quarterback from what he can’t see coming. That’s why the first check you write is for the mortgage. The second is for insurance.”
This is the opening monologue from the film “The Blind Side,” albeit slightly paraphrased. And what that quarterback — and most athletes — also can’t see coming is the end of his career, particularly if it comes prematurely due to injury.
According to a 2007 study by the University of Colorado, the career of a pro football player is 3.5 years. Baseball players fare slightly better at 5.6 years, though it was also revealed that 20 percent of all baseball players only spend a single year between the foul lines. So what happens after that? How do athletes maintain the lifestyles they’ve grown accustomed to once those big paychecks stop coming?
The easy answer is, who cares?
After all, since pitcher Nolan Ryan inked that first-ever $1 million contract with the Houston Astros in 1979, it can be argued that pro sports has raised generations of high-priced, overpaid athletes. And based on the skyrocketing salaries being handed out, it’s easy to see how the life of a professional athlete is akin to that of a rock star or Hollywood A-list actor. But the difference is that an athlete’s window of income will close much faster. Very few sports stars will be hitting the stage at 70 like Mick Jagger or directing films at 80 like Clint Eastwood. And while a musician or actor can pretty much control when to call it quits, an athlete may not always have the luxury of choice, particularly if a 250-pound linebacker falls on his leg (see: Theismann, Joe).
Take Cleveland Indians’ centerfielder Grady Sizemore, for instance. Sizemore’s trips to the disabled list are disturbing, considering he missed all of the 2010 season after having microfracture surgery on his knee. He then went on the DL once again, the first month of the 2012 season. The way Yahoo! Sports sees it, “if Sizemore continues to struggle with injuries, he may become another star athlete who never reaches his potential due to injury.”
So what happens when there are no games left to be played for Grady Sizemore and others? How does a player like Sizemore maintain the lifestyle he’s carved out for himself with the more than $23 million he’s earned thus far? Some athletes are wise and acquire a nest egg through smart business investments. But many athletes fall victim to bad advice or their own personal demons (see: former Boston Celtic Antoine Walker). A disturbing report in Sports Illustrated points out that roughly 70% of all professional athletes are either broke or in financial straits within five years of ending their playing days.
Agreed, it is a hard concept to wrap your head around, especially when you consider that the $10 million a top athlete makes in a year would last the average working Joe a huge chunk of his lifetime. But that’s only assuming the average working Joe doesn’t own three homes, four cars, a trophy wife and a lifestyle befitting a twice-monthly paycheck of $384,615.38.
Big paychecks, big risks
This is when an athlete needs to have the financial pieces in place to maintain his lifestyle — or at least a fair portion of it. And this can only come about by realizing that, with a compressed career life span and a susceptibility to career-ending injuries, disability insurance protection is the most critical form of insurance any player can have. This is particularly true in the NFL, where contracts aren’t typically guaranteed and every athlete’s career is literally being held together by a knee ligament the width of a thick rubber band.
Unlike the traditional disability income insurance you might sell to a 27-year-old attorney, business owner or dentist, the disability contracts pro athletes secure are a whole different ballgame. Generally speaking, professional athletes secure career-ending disability insurance protection — most commonly with a one-year elimination period and benefits payable in a lump sum if the player suffers a disability due to either accident or illness, on or off the field. Coverage is usually underwritten for a single-year period each time, and the player needs to reapply each year. The underwriting requirements are much more orthopedic in nature, and if the amount of insurance exceeds a few million dollars, most competent underwriters will require an orthopedic surgeon to conduct an exam for any sizeable policy. Some players (depending on age, contract, sport, position, etc.) may be able to secure disability protection on a multi-year basis, but these multi-year insurance contracts are not available to most rank-and-file professional athletes.