Many players face life on a budget amid labor uncertainty

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- Don't buy that car. Shorten that vacation. Eat at home.

Whatever they do, NFL players have been warned for years about the need to save and the importance of budgeting their money in case of a work stoppage.

Well, the lockout is here.

"We've been hammering the point home for two years that you have to be careful and you have to be prepared," Browns linebacker Scott Fujita said. "Guys I know have made concessions.

"There are always a few guys you have to be concerned about, that you think might not have taken the right steps. It's a part of the education process. Maybe you have to spoon-feed them on filling out direct deposit slips or coaching them on a change of lifestyle."

The lifestyle for pro football players, particularly the veterans, is a good one. Seahawks guard Chester Pitts, a nine-year veteran, calls it "very comfortable."

But Pitts notes it also needs to have limitations, more so when the players have no money coming in from the owners because of the labor stalemate.

"The guys in the locker room call me the cheapest guy around," Pitts said with a laugh, "but you have to be wise with your money. You can live a great life and still be careful and still be smart.

"I tell guys, `Why do you need that $250,000 car? A Mercedes is a great car and it's $85,000. You can afford that on your salary, and what's that ($250,000) car going to do for you?'"

Willie Colon didn't need that advice; he already had decided to stay out of the automotive market this offseason.

The Steelers tackle, who missed the 2010 season with a torn right Achilles' tendon, had thoughts of purchasing a new car for himself and one for his brother.

Won't happen.

"I wanted to buy a car for my brother because his car is beat up," said Colon, who earned $2.198 million last year. "But I told him this is not the year to make a lot of moves, especially with me being a (restricted) free agent and the lockout."

Colon, who is single, also said he is eating out less and being responsible with his money, something he admits wasn't always the case.

"When I was coming into the league as a rookie and I was able to get a signing bonus, I was somewhat dumb in spending it," he said. "You know, you are a kid right out of Hofstra and you come into some money. But now, my adviser will always be in my ear. They educate you on how much is important to spend and what is important not to spend it on.

"If you are wining and dining every night, try and cut back, go to the grocery store and then stay home and cook. Your lifestyle doesn't have to take a complete 180, but you need to be concerned because you never know when this lockout will end."

Panthers receiver Steve Smith sees the lockout as an opportunity for the players to learn fiscal responsibility, regardless of how much they make.

"It's not about, 'Well, I'm locked out, so now I need to save,"' said Smith, who is scheduled to make about $7 million in 2010. "It's really giving guys an opportunity to evaluate themselves and say, 'You're supposed to save anyway.' It's just an added incentive to make guys look at their financial habits and correct them and change them. I started doing that two years ago."

Fujita and Pitts are extremely involved in the NFLPA, which is holding its meetings here; Fujita as an executive board member and Pitts as a player rep. But there are hundreds who don't have such active roles. That rank-and-file is the segment the association's leaders must reach about their finances.

Patriots tackle Matt Light is certain they have been reached. He cites not only the togetherness of the players in New England, but of all his peers in dealing with falling on difficult financial times.

 Seahawks guard 

Chester Pitts

"I would be shocked if that happens to any of our guys," Light said.

But, says Pitts, it wouldn't be all that stunning for the younger players to either have not gotten the message or ignored it. That has made communicating with them so critical.

"If you're not taught how to do something, the chances you are just going to learn it without help are not very good," he said. "If a kid hasn't been taught how to (ride a bicycle), he's probably never going to do it. He's probably not going to learn on his own."

Pitts knows of players who aren't living as large as they once did, including several who told him their postseason vacations were cut in half or even shelved.

All the players have taken a bit of a financial hit already because of the lockout: NFL teams no longer are paying for their health insurance. Fujita paid $1,900 this month for coverage for his wife and two children. For bigger families, the price is around $2,400 a month.

Yes, Fujita signed a three-year, $14 million free agent contract with Cleveland a year ago, with $8 million guaranteed. He's also played nine seasons, and the league average is about one-third of that.

"We may make a lot of money, but it is for a very short time," said Chiefs linebacker Mike Vrabel, one of 10 players whose names are on an antritrust action against the NFL in a U.S. District Court to stop the lockout. " I have been lucky to be in this game for 14 years, to think about that is crazy.

"The average guy plays 3.4 years, and you have got to make that work."

The 1,900 or so players in the league now must plan to make the numbers work despite potentially not receiving paychecks in 2011; normally, they get paid in each of the 17 weeks of the schedule.

"My financial adviser has told me to put a little more away and to budget here and there a bit more, and I have," Colon said. "You don't want to have to find another job because you were not careful with your money and now the money isn't coming."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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