With the flurry of free agency news, including Donte Whitner's apparent departure from San Francisco, the air is saturated with fans and commentators bashing players for "taking the money," "lack of loyalty," "greed" or some other negative projection. This is emblematic not only of the proliferation of the internet tough guy, but also of an age-old phenomenon whereby when somebody makes a lot of money, we stop seeing them as people. We say, "They should be grateful to make that kind of money. If I was him, I wouldn't squabble over making $5M v. $8M per year." It's the equivalent of somebody bashing Bill Gates for "only" donating $28B to charity. We fantasize about how generous and grateful we would be, and then we judge these men because we cannot see the situation from their perspective. It can even devolve into racial or class warfare, because "certain people" just blow through their money.
But the truth is that the NFL is a cut-throat business. As soon as you stop being useful or start getting expensive, teams will cut you without a second thought. Almost no contracts are fully guaranteed. Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin's epic rant summed up this situation beautifully: the average NFL career is 3.5 years, and the average salary is about $1.5M. While $1.5M a year is certainly nothing to sneeze at, it's hardly the life of extravagant luxury most people envision, particularly once agents and managers take their share. And when it's over, it's over. The NFL has a pension program, but it obviously pales in comparison to player salaries. Most players aren't famous enough to parlay their career into endorsements, TV gigs, or coaching jobs. A lot of players have to basically start their lives over because they've spent their whole lives pursuing this singular dream. Naturally, they want to maximize their brief window of opportunity.
So when people spout off about how these guys are "greedy" or "not team players," I have to sigh and shake my head. Not only is this position entirely hypocritical - would you stay at a job that underpaid you out of "loyalty?" - but it ignores the reality of life in the NFL. No, I'm not asking you to shed any tears for the guys playing at the league minimum salary. But deriding a guy for making the most out of his brief playing career, especially in violent game like football, is ignorant and needlessly judgmental. You never know what tomorrow will bring, either in terms of your future financial situation, your health, or your team's "contender" status.
These guys play a violent game, and the long-term health consequences can be dire. Wouldn't you want to build up the biggest nest egg you could, in case something happens to you or one of your loved ones down the line? Chastising them for doing what most (read: all) of us would do ourselves is hypocritical and ignorant. They sacrifice their bodies and minds to entertain us while Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell rake in enough money to make Peyton Manning look poor. They deserve to make as much money as they can, and none of us have the right to judge them for it.
So go on and pop the bubbly, Hitner. We loved having you in SF, and we wish you the best.