Today’s guest columnist is Dr. Phil McGraw, host of the Dr. Phil show.
This year’s NFL Draft will mint a new class of millionaires—262 to be precise, at least on paper.
The first player selected in 2022’s draft will walk away with a contract worth more than $37 million, over half of which will come as a signing bonus, according to Spotrac. Even players on the lower end will receive contracts potentially north of $3 million, generating life-changing sums of money for young athletes.
While this year’s draft will embody the American Dream for a select few—the “one-percenters” receiving millions of dollars to play in a professional league with media appearances and sponsorship deals—most may soon experience a darker side. According to a 2009 Sports Illustrated story, 78% of NFL players file for bankruptcy or experience financial hardship only two years after retiring, at the average age of 27.
Are highly disciplined, high-achieving athletes being set up for failure?
The data says yes. Both university athletics programs and professional leagues are perpetuating a mental health crisis among today’s young players. Only 1.6% of all college players will even be drafted to play in the NFL, but even those lucky few can become crippled with depression, shame and an overwhelming sense of failure when their life’s purpose evaporates after just three short years of playing professionally when they adopt a media perpetuated, unrealistic lifestyle that data has shown is likely unsustainable. A reality the league well knows but is anything but transparent about.
Athletes who aren’t drafted may emotionally crash even earlier because they were never counseled to truly develop a backup plan—they never received a playbook for how that world works. Likewise, they will often struggle with depression and anxiety.
The path to success provided for college players by their coaches, athletic departments and sports leagues is self-serving, allowing vested interests to profit at the expense of young athletes. It is paramount that universities amend the culture of their sports programs to protect players and perform their sole responsibility as entrusted institutions: empower graduates for a lifetime of success, not just a few “great seasons.”
A 2021 Georgetown University study estimates median lifetime earnings for men in America vary from $1.8 million for high-school graduates to $3.3 million for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree. Even the bottom of the draft pool average beats the male college graduate number in only four years, as opposed to a 40-year career for the average American. Why then do 78% experience financial disaster within two years of being out of the league? The answer can only be: a lack of preparation. What then can be done to remedy this problem?
The NCAA recently formalized a new policy allowing athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness (NIL). While the NCAA’s approach to NIL is, in theory, an important step in empowering athletes, making sure they benefit from the value they create for institutions, it also stands to perpetuate the current problem of young people getting showered in money and hooked into a cycle of spending and exploitation. Naïve, eager young men with money many have never had before, a fair amount of free time and little guidance—what could possibly go wrong in this situation? Their brains are still developing. Moreover, the last part to grow is the area where executive functions such as planning, foresight, predicting consequences of actions and impulse control among other self-management tools develop. While financial literacy courses are “provided” and brochures “made available,” these young athletes are often not given proper counsel.
Player exploitation by universities and sports franchises, and the resulting mental health crisis, is also a problem disproportionately affecting African American communities. According to a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, black men comprised between 57% and 70% of college football teams, but only 2.8% of “full-time degree-seeking undergraduates.” By contrast, roughly 89% of college football coaches are white, according to a study published this year by the University of Central Florida.
Although college coaches are often seen as shepherds to young athletes’ careers, they stand at the intersection of multiple interest points: university endowment funds, professional sports franchises and corporations courting players for promotional purposes. Their job is to extract physically demanding performances from athletes, no matter the cost to other areas of their lives. While profiting from players in the short term unfortunately defines college athletics, universities would be better served investing in these students across all areas.
An accomplished alumni network can bolster donations, while serving as a resource pool to help college athletes down the line. Rather than leaving athletes at risk of connecting with predatory financial advisors and others happy to help them squander their hard earned money, universities should empower these students to understand business and value creation. Responsibilities of this sort cannot solely be left to the discretion of coaches and athletics departments: Independent arbitrators with backgrounds in business and the professional sports industry, including merchandising, media and law, should ensure players are investing in their long-term success.
For all its flaws, the NCAA’s NIL policy does offer opportunities for athletes to learn the power of building a brand, forming key affiliations and understanding value creation within institutions, lessons applicable to all industries when properly framed by educators. However, the NCAA and its membership should seize the opportunity to teach young athletes during college how to better handle what some are about to experience on a much larger scale in the pros.
A mental crisis has exploded over the past few decades among some of the most physically capable and disciplined individuals in the United States. Do we as a society wish to continue perpetuating myths of grandeur around the sports industry that do not consider the brutal reality? Young athletes are being failed by a system that does not prioritize their mental health, long-term success or spiritual happiness, instead exploiting them. Universities need to prioritize providing athletes with strong role models and psychological, legal and professional resources, so they can still live fulfilling lives even if they never make it to the NFL Draft, let alone the Super Bowl.
Through his top-rated daytime TV program, Dr. Phil McGraw has become one of the most well-known and trusted mental health professionals in the world. Now in its 20th season, Dr. Phil continues to provide a comprehensive forum on mental health issues.