Philadelphia Eagles cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson had an eventful weekend full of highs and lows. On Saturday night, his team walloped the New York Giants, 38-7, to advance to the NFC Championship Game. But on Monday, days after his team came within one win of a trip to the Super Bowl, Gardner-Johnson went on social media to report that someone had stolen his car.
The drama didn’t end there, however. When fans discovered that the car in question was a Kia, Twitter erupted at the thought of a professional athlete driving something other than a luxury brand car. Newsweek chronicled some of the online mocking, from questions like “Why he got a Kia in the first place?” to another commenting that “you’re that good of a player and you got a d— Kia you need it to be stolen.”
As a longtime Eagles fan, this observer might have a bias toward Gardner-Johnson. But the player’s choice of vehicle seems entirely sensible — one worthy of praise rather than social media trolling.
Numerous publications, including a 2009 Sports Illustrated article and a 2012 ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, have chronicled all the ways in which professional athletes often find themselves in financial difficulty soon after ending their careers. The Sports Illustrated piece found that 78 percent of NFL athletes find themselves bankrupt, or in financial distress, within two years of retirement, and that 60 percent of NBA stars end up in a similar position within five years of ending their basketball careers.
Receiving a windfall income in their teens and twenties, in many cases after having little resources during their youth, frequently results in poor spending decisions, akin to those made by lottery winners, who also go quickly from “rags to riches.” And while other celebrities (e.g., musicians, actors, etc.) can generate a substantial income over multiple decades, giving them the possibility of overcoming youthful mistakes, athletes’ income-producing ability often depends upon their physical health, making it much more limited in duration.
Moreover, the “windfall” income, while high compared to the salaries of most working Americans, in many cases doesn’t come near to providing a lifetime of luxury for athletes with notoriously short—and fickle—careers. Take Gardner-Johnson’s salary history as a pro football player. Over four seasons in the NFL, he has earned over $5.3 million.
But consider that, as he ends his fourth season, Gardner-Johnson’s career has lasted longer than the average NFL player, and that he only earned significantly more than $1 million in this, his fourth season. Consider too that the average pro athlete will land in the top income tax brackets, meaning they will pay anywhere from 50-60 percent of their salary in local, state, and federal taxes.
So yes, Gardner-Johnson made $5.3 million in four years. But will $2.65 million — a rough estimate of his after-tax income over his career to date — provide the 25-year-old with enough money to live on for the rest of life? Quite possibly not, and definitely not if he spent all his income trying to impress Twitter trolls over the brand of car he drives.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Therein lies the great temptation for athletes and other celebrities, to fritter away their income on conspicuous consumption, the more to impress others. From clothes to mansions to cars and blinged-out jewelry, the desire to keep up with the proverbial Joneses often proves powerful—and fatal to one’s finances over the long run.
Young athletes often do not realize that their high earning power is finite and limited. By making decisions for the moment, and spending as much (or more) money as they take in, they eliminate their ability to rely upon those few years of high earnings to fund the 40, 50, or even 60-plus years they will live after they retire from sports.
In this case, Gardner-Johnson appears to have defied the trend, at least when it comes to his choice of vehicle. Having been traded from the New Orleans Saints last August, Gardner-Johnson knew he faced uncertainty when his rookie contract expires at the end of this season. And having spent part of this season sidelined with a lacerated kidney might tend to reinforce the fragile nature of the NFL, where a single play could lead to an injury that ends one’s career.
So while Gardner-Johnson didn’t make the flashy move by eschewing a fancy Lamborghini, Porsche, or another luxury car, he made the smart move. I hope the cornerback, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this season despite missing five games due to his injury, gets the contract extension he deserved playing for the Eagles this season. And I hope other athletes will focus on their long-term future, and not impressing Twitter, when making important financial and spending decisions.