Column: Shakedown? Rite of passage? Or a bargain?

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2013 11:28 AM
Column: Shakedown? Rite of passage? Or a bargain?

A friend makes vague threats if you refuse to kick $15,000 into the kitty so he and his pals can take a trip to Vegas without you.

At certain times and places, that's called a shakedown, or worse. At the moment, in at least one NFL locker room and probably more, it's a rite of passage.

It's hard to know who to believe as the war of words between Miami teammates-turned-antagonists Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin escalates. Among the many points of contention is whether Martin handed over the $15,000 — as Incognito contends — because he pulled out of the trip; or, as the rookie Martin maintains, because he feared being hazed even more for violating the code that prevailed inside the Dolphins' locker room.

It will be up to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to decide, once he receives a report from Ted Wells, a respected New York attorney the league appointed to investigate the matter. And if true, the $15,000 payoff could turn out to be a bargain. Just this past summer, Adam Jones, the reformed Cincinnati Bengals cornerback known as "Pacman" in a previous incarnation, told the gathering at the NFL's annual rookie symposium how he dropped $1 million in Las Vegas — over the course of a single weekend.

Colts tight end Coby Fleener, a former teammate of Martin's at Stanford who was in the audience that day, said that as jaws dropped throughout the room, co-panelist Terrell Owens looked over at Jones, smiled and said simply, "Man, you crazy!" And Owens should know. Now 39 and unable to convince an NFL team to give him another shot, he's trying out pro bowling as a second act, desperate to replenish the bank account he drained — aided by bad investments — the first time around.

Similar stories abound in every sport. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are only the most recent examples in a racket whose history of profligacy stretches back a century. Baseball, basketball, hockey and even golf have seen their share of newly-minted marks party their way right up to the door of the poor house. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that no one does it faster or more foolishly than pro football players. A 2009 report in Sports Illustrated, citing a variety of sources, found that 78 percent of NFL athletes, or nearly four out of every five, are flirting with bankruptcy within five years of retirement.

"That sounds about right," cornerback Rashean Mathis said matter-of-factly in the visitors' locker room Sunday after his Lions beat the Bears. "I've been in the league 11 seasons and seen or heard about a few along the way. Guys come into the league, get more money than they ever dreamed of, and think they're set for life. They get caught up in the lifestyle, and either don't know, don't want to, or can't pull back.

"As a veteran, you see it and try to tell guys, 'Dude, that's not worth it.' Personally, I think it's the agent's responsibility to do that. But there's guys I look back and wish I could have reached them," Mathis said finally. "But all you can do for some of them is pray."

Even divine intervention, though, might not have worked with Vince Young. The former Tennessee Titans quarterback went through a reported $26 million in little more than five years, easy to believe when you hear about the time Young wanted to fly home to Houston in peace and bought up the remaining 120 of 130 seats on a Southwest flight. It wasn't the only story, either.

During a segment on a Tennessee radio show 13 months ago, callers claiming to be bartenders and servers at some of Young's favorite haunts testified to his largesse: routinely picking up the tab for teammates and just about everybody in the bar at a local T.G.I. Friday's restaurant — average cost $6,000 a night; that after about $5,000 a week eating out at the Cheesecake Factory during his rookie season.

Young tweeted his response soon after: "It's a shame to see people revel in and rally around negativity in the media but I guess it's to be expected. Yes, I need a job, who doesn't? Yes, I want to be out there playing the game I love and earning a paycheck, who wouldn't?"

That response hints at another reason why football players may run into money problems faster that their pro counterparts. According to the NFL Players Association, the average career runs 3½ years, compounded by the fact that those players' first — and often only — contract contains the least amount of guaranteed money. And add up the price of a home or two, several cars, vacations, tailored clothes, generous gifts and lavish parties, agent and management fees, taxes and in a few cases, bad investments and child support — and it's easy to see how the gravy train could run out of steam.

In some places back up the track, players are already applying the brakes. In the Baltimore locker room Sunday, right after the Ravens' overtime win against Cincinnati, someone asked cornerback Corey Graham how the team planned to celebrate.

"Some guys go out, some guys go to dinner with their families, some guys do crazy things. I don't know what's going to happen but I'll figure something out."

But a moment later, the six-year veteran added, "Nothing crazy. I'm getting a little older, I don't do too much."


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at and follow him at .