Dez Bryant's elders on the Dallas Cowboys roster decided to teach the rookie a lesson, and in the process, revealed how little they have learned about life in pro sports. As part of a hazing ritual for the first-round draft pick, according to ESPNDallas.com, veterans rang up a dinner and fine-wine bill of $54,896 at a Dallas steakhouse and passed the entire tab to Bryant.
Any hope that the story might be a hoax faded dramatically when Bryant's adviser, David Wells, essentially confirmed it. Still, the numbers seem implausible.
|Dez Bryant's teammates take him to the cleaners. (US Presswire)|
Did the older Cowboys bother to consider how this extravagance would look if word about the meal got out? With a labor fight brewing, the last thing NFL players need is to appear completely out of touch with average Americans.
Yes, the lavish prank targeted a rookie who signed a contract worth a guaranteed $8.3 million before he had ever played a down professionally, and then refused to play along with the ritual of carrying the veterans' shoulder pads after practice. The spirit of the occasion might appeal to fans who have seen Draft Day busts cart off huge portions of their team's payroll. But the numbers on that tab add up to disrespect for the many athletes who do earn their money and ignorance about the reality of finances for an NFL player.
Sports Illustrated last year published a story estimating that 78 percent of the league's players found themselves in financial distress two years after retirement, either because of divorce or unemployment. Even if that figure were only half-correct, it would be profoundly disturbing.
It's bad enough when athletes undermine themselves, wasting fortunes on plainly unsound investments or, in the case of Adam Jones, "making it rain" at a Vegas strip joint with $40,000 worth of bills stashed in a garbage bag. For that matter, it's shocking that many Americans lay out that kind of money and more for weddings.
But Bryant had virtually no way of preventing this blow to his financial future. He either went along and paid the bill, or risked permanent ostracism in the locker room.
And $54,896 is an uppercut to his bank account. Given the size of his contract, it might not seem to be. But add up the taxes, the outlay for agents and other representatives, and he surrenders at least 30 percent of that $8.3 million. Tally the financial support he may be expected to provide for family members, and ... well, no one will feel sorry for him, but if his body wears out before he gets another deal, he won't remain a rich man unless he is very, very prudent.
His older teammates should be teaching him that, not pressing him to spend more than the cost of a year at Stanford or Yale on an impromptu banquet of steak and wine.
These sorts of incidents tend to hand owners an edge in labor negotiations that they don't deserve. As both the NBA and NFL are trying to rein in player salaries, any tales of excess will build a case against the athletes.
Twelve years ago, during the lockout that wiped out half of the NBA season, point guard Kenny Anderson, then with the Celtics, made the mistake of agreeing to lay out his finances for a story in the New York Times. He earnestly described using some of his $6 million salary to create a business that generated jobs and covering the mortgage for his mother's house. But what caught everyone's eye? In jest, Anderson said he might have to part with one of his eight luxury cars, which required $75,000 in insurance and maintenance costs.
The backlash was ruthless. Anderson's eight cars became a punch line. No one asked how many NBA owners, then crying poor, had extensive car collections. For that matter, no one will hear how much Cowboys owner Jerry Jones spends at a steakhouse, although he did jokingly squabble with Saints coach Sean Payton over a bottle of wine worth close to $300 on a visit to an Indianapolis restaurant during this year's combine.
The good news for players is that fans generally have come to accept the multimillion-dollar deals of star athletes and even have grown frustrated with team owners who won't pay top dollar for talent. The players feel resentment only if they fail to perform or explain discontent with their contracts by saying they need to feed their families.
In the end, Anderson did turn out to be living beyond his means. About six months after the end of his 14-year career, during which he earned $63 million, he declared bankruptcy. That fate awaits many of the players who dined on Bryant's dime Monday night. If they thought a surprise bill of $55,000 constituted a joke, they're headed for ruin. Nobody notched a win at that dinner, except the staffers who collected the tip.
Gwen Knapp is a sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.