No Guarantees

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Duke Ihenacho, Safety / Washington Redskins - The Players' Tribune

It started like most things start these days: on social media.

NBA free agency had begun a couple of days earlier, and while I was on my phone messing around on Twitter, I saw a SportsCenter tweet. DeAndre Jordan agreed to a deal with the Mavericks. Four years, $80-something million.

I thought, Damn, DeAndre Jordan just got paid. Good for him. I like DeAndre. He deserves it. I didn’t click to read the story. Initially, I didn’t think too much of it.

Then I started seeing other tweets of guys getting new contracts. So I turned my TV on and went straight to ESPN.

At the bottom of the screen, the ticker said it all. This guy’s getting $80 million. That guy’s getting $70 million. So-and-so agreed to $60 million. But these weren’t necessarily A-list players in the NBA. These were second-tier guys, and they were getting paid. And since almost all NBA contracts are guaranteed, they’ll probably see every dollar.

Now, I’ll never knock anyone for getting paid. I like seeing players get their money. But all I could think was, Why aren’t we NFL players getting a bigger slice of the pie?

Washington Redskins defensive back Duke Ihenacho stretches during the team's NFL football training camp in Richmond, Va., Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.   (AP Photo/Jason Hirschfeld)

NFL contracts aren’t fully guaranteed. On top of that, the guaranteed minimum isn’t even $1 million unless you’ve been in the league 10-plus years.

Think about that: The No. 1 league in America — one that is projected to pull down $12 billion in revenue this year — essentially treats its players who risk head trauma and other life-altering injuries as independent contractors. At any time, we can break down because of an injury suffered on the job and then be let go without so much as a dime. Meanwhile, second-tier NBA players are getting $60-plus million guaranteed.

That sounded crazy to me. And that’s when I started tweeting.

It doesn’t matter if you’re tweeting about guaranteed contracts or puppies and kittens. On Twitter, people can’t wait to disagree with you. So obviously, I got a lot of heat for my tweets. People saying things like:

At any time, we can break down because of an injury suffered on the job and then be let go without so much as a dime.

“You play a game for a living. Just shut up and play.”

“You’re a joke”

“You should be grateful you have a job.”

“I’d play in the NFL for free.”

One guy even said I should go back to grade school and learn some math. But the numbers speak for themselves.

Look, I get it. There are 15 guys on an NBA roster. In the NFL, there are 53. The money has to be spread a lot thinner on an NFL team. The NBA guys are more marketable because you see their faces, and so on. There are a lot of reasons — good reasons — why NBA players get paid more. I’m not saying all NFL players should get paid like the NBA guys. I’m just saying we need to take a look at the system that’s in place and see how we can better take care of the players in this league who aren’t signing the huge contracts you read about and aren’t getting those guaranteed dollars.

When us NFL players see other leagues giving out fully guaranteed contracts, of course we’re going to feel uneasy about it. We’re going to think, Well, what about us? Especially when the average salaries in those leagues are around $5 million (NBA), $4 million (MLB) and $2.5 million (NHL), while the average in the NFL is a non-guaranteed $2 million. The NFL is the richest and most popular of the major sports leagues in America and we have the lowest average salary and the lowest minimum salary. That doesn’t add up.

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In my first three seasons in the NFL, I made a total of about $1.5 million. That sounds like a lot of money, and that’s the thing. People see us on TV on Sunday, see a dollar amount attached to our name in the news and think we’re walking away from the stadium every week with a briefcase full of cash headed home to live the good life. But not only do I have to make that $500,000 per year for those three years last for the rest of my life, it also comes along with the known risk of possibly getting seriously injured.

I fractured my foot in Week 3 of my third season in the NFL — my first year with the Redskins. I went to injured reserve and missed the rest of the season, and that’s when I started to really put things into perspective. I was like, Okay, this could be my last year. I may not bounce back. I may never be the same player…

This past year, I worked my ass up to get back healthy and playing well again. Going into this season, my fourth season, I was confident I’d be back and better than ever. I earned the starting strong safety position in training camp and was set to have a great year.

People don’t watch on Sunday to see the coaches coach and the owners own. They come to see the players play.

But sometimes things don’t always play out the way you want.

I suffered a season-ending wrist injury in our season opener against the Dolphins. So for the second year in a row, I won’t be out there battling with my brothers. I’ll be watching from the sidelines, supporting my guys and wondering what the future holds for me as a player.

Injury is a serious obstacle. It can be life-changing. And you never know when it’s gonna occur. It can happen during a game. It can happen at practice. It can happen, really, any time.

I’m confident I have a lot of football left. It sucks to be back on injured reserve for the second straight year, but I’m not discouraged at all. But if my career were to end today, what am I going to do? I’ve trained my whole life for this and I’m putting my body on the line for the fans, the owner, the team — and yes, for my family and for myself, first and foremost. But if you study your whole life to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, you’ll probably get to do it until you’re 65 or until you decide to retire. The average NFL career is 3.5 years. The decision to retire is often made for us, and once we’re out of the league, the skills we worked our whole lives to develop aren’t of much use. And make no mistake: To make it to this level, you will have had to dedicate a significant amount of your life to it — time that otherwise might have been spent on other pursuits.

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I’m not saying anybody should feel sorry for me or any NFL player. I’m just saying that in case I become a statistic — one of those 3.5-years-or-less guys or one of those guys who gets injured and has to call it quits — I want to have a little more security in the form of guaranteed money. Who wouldn’t?

You don’t hear a lot of the stories about guys getting injured and forced out of the league in their first couple of years before they’ve even gotten the chance to see the field. If it happened to a starting quarterback or a fantasy star, it’d be all over ESPN. But when it happens to a young player making the league minimum — just trying to grab a roster spot and keep his NFL dream alive — it flies under the radar. And believe me, it happens more than you know. I’ve seen it happen to friends of mine, and I could have been one of them.

These are the guys who could use that extra security.

People don’t watch on Sunday to see the coaches coach and the owners own. They come to see the players play. The players drive this multi-billion-dollar machine, and we should speak up when we think we’re getting too small a slice of the pie or we’re not getting the kind of security we think we should. I’m not alone in this thinking, either. Believe me, guys talk about this all the time behind the scenes. They just don’t say it out in the open that often.

That’s why I started tweeting that day. It’s a conversation that needs to be had, so let’s have it.

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