Column: Shakedown? Rite of passage? Or a bargain?

Published on NewsOK Modified: November 11, 2013 at 10:28 am •  Published: November 11, 2013

A friend makes vague threats if you refuse to kick $15,000 into the kitty so he and his pals can take a trip to Vegas without you.

At certain times and places, that's called a shakedown, or worse. At the moment, in at least one NFL locker room and probably more, it's a rite of passage.

It's hard to know who to believe as the war of words between Miami teammates-turned-antagonists Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin escalates. Among the many points of contention is whether Martin handed over the $15,000 — as Incognito contends — because he pulled out of the trip; or, as the rookie Martin maintains, because he feared being hazed even more for violating the code that prevailed inside the Dolphins' locker room.

It will be up to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to decide, once he receives a report from Ted Wells, a respected New York attorney the league appointed to investigate the matter. And if true, the $15,000 payoff could turn out to be a bargain. Just this past summer, Adam Jones, the reformed Cincinnati Bengals cornerback known as "Pacman" in a previous incarnation, told the gathering at the NFL's annual rookie symposium how he dropped $1 million in Las Vegas — over the course of a single weekend.

Colts tight end Coby Fleener, a former teammate of Martin's at Stanford who was in the audience that day, said that as jaws dropped throughout the room, co-panelist Terrell Owens looked over at Jones, smiled and said simply, "Man, you crazy!" And Owens should know. Now 39 and unable to convince an NFL team to give him another shot, he's trying out pro bowling as a second act, desperate to replenish the bank account he drained — aided by bad investments — the first time around.

Similar stories abound in every sport. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield are only the most recent examples in a racket whose history of profligacy stretches back a century. Baseball, basketball, hockey and even golf have seen their share of newly-minted marks party their way right up to the door of the poor house. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that no one does it faster or more foolishly than pro football players. A 2009 report in Sports Illustrated, citing a variety of sources, found that 78 percent of NFL athletes, or nearly four out of every five, are flirting with bankruptcy within five years of retirement.

"That sounds about right," cornerback Rashean Mathis said matter-of-factly in the visitors' locker room Sunday after his Lions beat the Bears. "I've been in the league 11 seasons and seen or heard about a few along the way. Guys come into the league, get more money than they ever dreamed of, and think they're set for life. They get caught up in the lifestyle, and either don't know, don't want to, or can't pull back.

"As a veteran, you see it and try to tell guys, 'Dude, that's not worth it.' Personally, I think it's the agent's responsibility to do that. But there's guys I look back and wish I could have reached them," Mathis said finally. "But all you can do for some of them is pray."

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