A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that one in six NFL players declare bankruptcy within 12 years of retirement. The study collected court filing data on approximately 2,000 retired players drafted between 1996 and 2003. Via the Wall Street Journal:
They found few players file for bankruptcy while playing in the NFL. But filings gradually increase in the two years after retirement, “likely due to a combination of players rapidly drawing down limited savings and having leveraged investments.” The bankruptcy rate increases over time.
The rate of NFL retiree bankruptcy filings was similar to or higher than estimates for similarly aged people in the general U.S. population, they wrote.
This finding is vastly different than what Sports Illustrated published in a 2009 piece entitled “How and Why Athletes Go Broke.” In that piece, it stated that “[b]y the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.”
Now, that piece used the phrasing to include “under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.” It was derived, it appears, from speaking to agents and others and–reporting what they said? Seeking out the players who were in trouble? This latest study takes a detailed look at actual court records and matching them up to former players.
Even though the standards are different, it is fantastical to believe that 78% of former players (more than 3 in 4) were bankrupt or in financial stress due to joblessness or divorce within two years, yet only 1 in 6 ended up actually filing for bankruptcy over 12 years. Heck, maybe it’s just that we are all under financial stress, but that number became a fall-back and was trumpeted widely.
Run a search for the 78% number. It’s everywhere, reported as fact. So let’s replace it, please, sports media, with this more objectively gathered and researched number that reflects the truth. Yes, many players–some of whom made lots of money including prominent cases like Warren Sapp–declare for bankruptcy.
But the better and more accurate number is almost 1 in 6.