From the outside, it looks like professional athletes have it made. They’re highly paid, they work a few months out of the year, and a good day at the office can be seen by millions. But there are still a few asterisks involved in the world of sports. Check out a few harsh realities about playing games for a living.
1. IT’S A NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE DREAM, EVEN FOR VERY GOOD ATHLETES.
For all of the sweat equity college athletes put into their chosen sport, the harsh reality is that almost none of them will be able to graduate into a professional athletics career. Only 30 percent of seniors are still playing the sport they started as freshmen—and of those, less than two percent will get an opportunity to suit up for a pro team.
2. THE AVERAGE CAREER LASTS ONLY THREE TO FIVE YEARS.
Of the few selected to join a major sports league, the clock begins ticking the moment they’re drafted or sign with their first team. Across basketball, baseball, and football, the average career lasts just three to five years. While their annual salaries can appear substantial in headlines, it’s going to have to last the athlete the next 40 or 50 years of their lives.
3. A LOT OF THEM END UP GOING BROKE.
Bad investments, overly charitable behavior, and a general lack of accounting are all bad news for an athlete. According to some financial planners who specialize in sports, the majority of players who aren’t in the mega-contract stratosphere wind up having severe financial problems within five years of retirement.
4. INJURIES ARE GUARANTEED.
If a player is lucky, he’ll suffer only “minor” tendon or ligament injuries during a professional career. But in contact sports like football, boxing, and hockey, the risk for traumatic brain injury is significant. One study examining the brains of 91 deceased football players found that 87 had evidence of damage.
5. PAINKILLERS ARE COMMON.
All those injuries add up. While most pro athletes may only play a portion of the year, during the season their schedules are often packed with multiple games a week. Combined with travel, the body doesn’t have much time to recover. One recent study demonstrated that 52 percent of surveyed retired football players used painkillers during their careers. Of those, 71 percent admitted to misusing them, and 63 percent claimed they got the drugs from someone other than a doctor.
6. ATHLETES ARE TAXED FROM EVERY CORNER.
Rookies in pro leagues are often surprised to find tax withholdings credited to cities and states where their team has recently traveled for away games. While the “jock tax” bill for playing any single game won’t be huge for the athlete, at the end of the year they land in a high tax bracket that usually means taking home less than half of their reported earnings.
7. THE DIVORCE RATE IS HIGHER THAN THE AVERAGE.
Whether it’s road schedules, the stress of trying to maintain a well-paying position on an elite team, or indiscretion, professional athletes have a higher divorce rate than the national average, coming in at between 60 and 80 percent by some estimates. (For non-athletes, it’s closer to 50 percent.)
8. TAXPAYERS FOOT THE BILL FOR EXPENSIVE STADIUMS.
Sports franchises promise local markets an economical boost in exchange for paying the significant construction bills for stadiums. The problem? In most cases, that financial bump never comes. The arenas are only occupied by home teams a handful of dates out of the year, leaving the city to find ways to subsidize its cost the rest of the time.
9. THERE’S A HUGE GENDER GAP IN PAY.
Sports like soccer, golf, and basketball have all exhibited a huge gender discrepancy when it comes to athlete income. The minimum salary in the top American women’s basketball league is just $38,000; for the men, it’s $525,000. Top female golfers can earn just a fourth of their male counterparts take-home.
10. AN ACCIDENT COULD END A CAREER.
Like anyone else, pro athletes enjoy recreational activities in their downtime: skiing, motorcycles, or even skydiving. But many contracts prohibit players from putting themselves at risk, so these activities are off the table. Even if players manage to avoid a “banned” accident, something as simple as slipping and fracturing a wrist could mean millions in lost earnings.
11. CHEERLEADERS BARELY MAKE MINIMUM WAGE.
While pro athletes fight it out for multimillion-dollar salaries and pro leagues deal in billion-dollar contracts, the cheerleaders on the sidelines are busy trying to make a living wage. Some make as little as $75 per game, and others have alleged teams fine them for minor infractions like bringing the wrong pom-poms. While being a big-league cheerleader is classified as a part-time job, the paltry compensation still gives them little to be cheerful about.
Still not convinced you don’t want to play professional football? Adam Conover will give you even more reason to question everything you know about sports. To get the truth about this and more misconceptions related to the everyday stuff we take for granted, tune in to an all new episode of Adam Ruins Everything, Tuesday, August 23 at 10/9C on truTV.