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The End of the $25,000 N.F.L. Rookie Dinner?


A bottle of Screaming Eagle cabernet sauvignon: $3,495. Nineteen shots of Rémy Martin Louis XIII Cognac: $4,525. Rib-eye steaks, seafood platters, bottles of Voss water: $1,014.

Total bill: $17,748. With tip, greater than $20,000.

For a lot of diners, that will seem an outlandish amount to spend on a meal, even for a big group. For athletes within the National Football League, it’s a decades-old ritual often known as the rookie dinner — an exorbitant meal that latest players are expected to finance for his or her teammates.

On this particular case, the bill for a 2014 meal at a Del Frisco’s steakhouse was charged to Lane Johnson, a first-round draft pick and offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, who then posted the bill on Twitter.

Footing these five-figure bills has develop into standard practice throughout the N.F.L., “like putting your pads on before practice,” said Channing Crowder, a former linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. “It is a component of the sport.”

In 2019, D’Andre Walker, a fifth-round draft pick and a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, posted a dinner bill totaling greater than $10,000 from Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in Nashville. That very same yr, Deebo Samuel, a large receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, took his teammates out for a $3,700 rookie dinner at Shanahan’s, a steakhouse in Denver. The possible record-holder is a 2010 dinner at a Pappas Bros. Steakhouse where Dez Bryant, then a first-year player for the Dallas Cowboys, took on a $55,000 tab

These dinners are accepted as a cultural norm amongst players, fans, coaches and the league itself. (N.F.L. officials declined to comment for this story.)

So when Torrey Smith, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens and the Philadelphia Eagles, took to Twitter in June to share his disdain for rookie dinners, it was a rare instance of an N.F.L. athlete’s speaking out against a longstanding custom.

“Dudes come into the league with no financial literacy and real problems but folks think 50k dinners are cool! NAH!” he wrote, prompting discussions of whether the tradition is merely team bonding, or a type of hazing that may have damaging financial consequences.

“This dinner sets a precedent for a life-style that nearly all of players cannot afford to do and shouldn’t be living anyway,” Mr. Smith said in a recent interview. He decided to talk out after watching a video from the football-focused podcast “The Pivot,” wherein the first-year Latest York Jets player Garrett Wilson was told about the fee of rookie dinners for the primary time.

“A number of nonplayers were like, ‘What’s the large deal? You’re wealthy,’” Mr. Smith said. But, he added, one of these overspending could be a slippery slope, especially in a sport where a player’s success isn’t all the time guaranteed.

The N.F.L. is the highest-grossing skilled sports league in the US, with estimated revenues of $11 billion in 2021. Yet its players — who enter the league of their early 20s and develop into six- or seven-figure earners overnight — make lower than many skilled male athletes in other sports. They aren’t guaranteed contracts, and the common length of their careers is just in need of three years, based on the N.F.L. Players Association. A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that greater than 15 percent of N.F.L. players had declared bankruptcy inside 12 years of leaving the occupation.

Teams in other skilled sports have initiation rituals, and a few even host rookie dinners, but those within the N.F.L. are likely to get probably the most attention online, given the dimensions of the teams and, subsequently, the dinner bill.

“It’s the worst possible league to have a dinner like this,” said Will Leitch, a contributing editor at Latest York magazine who founded the sports website Deadspin.

For a lot of teams, these meals have morphed into shows of excess. They often happen at high-end steakhouses before the season starts. Veteran players intentionally order the most costly items in multiples: lobster, steak, top-shelf Cognac.

Rookie dinners are often divided up by positions on the sphere; if there are multiple rookies in a single position, they split the bill. And the way much each rookie owes directly correlates with that player’s draft order, so the team’s first-round picks — who earn more and have longer contracts — are expected to pay probably the most.

The dinners’ defenders are quick to define them outside the realm of hazing or harassment. Ryan Clark, who co-hosts the podcast “The Pivot” with Mr. Crowder and the retired running back Fred Taylor, thinks of the meals as a bonding experience, and compared the tradition to pledging a fraternity. “I did it, and you’ll do it,” he said, “and since you probably did it, you’ll make one other rookie do it.”

Mr. Crowder said the players who go broke are those who buy three or 4 houses, or who’ve children with multiple partners and pay child or spousal support. “A rookie dinner isn’t putting no person within the poor house.”

At Mr. Crowder’s rookie dinner in 2005, one player ordered two bottles of Louis XIII: one for the table and one to go. He said he paid near $30,000, about 5 percent of the $588,000 paycheck he’d received for a part of the season.

“If I even have to spend $30,000 on a dinner for my O.G.s, Vonnie Holliday, Kevin Carter, all the fellows I watched growing up,” he said, it’s value it. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Mr. Clark, who was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers after they won the Super Bowl in 2009, said veterans often look out for younger players during these dinners. When he joined the Latest York Giants in 2002 as an undrafted player, the veterans offered to separate the bill with him. And the general public sees only the best dinner tabs on social media, although they are often much less, added Mr. Taylor, a first-round pick within the 1998 draft. (James McGhee, the owner of the Houston restaurant Juliet, which has hosted several rookie dinners, said the bills typically range from $5,000 to about $25,000.)

Mr. Leitch, the magazine editor, said rookie dinners have taken place since no less than the Nineteen Seventies, when first-year players received sizable bonuses and were sometimes guaranteed to make greater than veteran players. The dinners were seen as a strategy to recirculate that cash among the many team.

But in 2011, the league adopted a rookie wage scale, which placed caps on first-year salaries. Today, many rookies make lower than veteran players, yet the dinners proceed.

“It speaks to a general culture of football, which treats young players as imminently disposable,” Mr. Leitch said. “There’s all the time one other coming, someone will all the time want your job, so you want to get along and go along and do what you might be told, otherwise you will probably be out of here in a second.”

Greg Hopkins, the director of Changing the Community, a nonprofit in Rochester, N.Y., that trains young athletes to play professionally, said people come into this system with almost no understanding of finance. He teaches them the fundamentals, like tips on how to open a checking account or money a check.

“For rookies coming in, especially when you aren’t as high-drafted, it’s best to not even be desirous about spending that kind of money,” he said of rookie dinners, because you might have no idea how long your profession will last.

Anquan Boldin, a former teammate of Mr. Smith’s, said that as someone who entered the N.F.L. without much money while also supporting members of the family, he has all the time seen rookie dinners as wasteful. As a substitute, he taught Mr. Smith and other rookies tips on how to save.

“Versus guys going out and spending $50,000 to $75,000 on dinner, I just felt like dudes could be higher served going out and helping their mom as an alternative,” he said.

If rookie dinners aren’t going away, perhaps they’re getting tamer. Daren Bates, a free agent who most recently played for the Atlanta Falcons, said veterans will plan the meals in smaller groups so the dinner bills are less pricey. As a player for the Tennessee Titans, he said, he saw team coaches force a bunch of veterans to offer $13,000 back to a first-year player after a rookie dinner. And college athletes, who can now make name, image and likeness deals, are entering the N.F.L. with more financial savvy, Mr. Leitch said.

The league probably won’t intervene to place a stop to rookie dinners, Mr. Leitch added. “The N.F.L.’s only real priorities, as we’ve seen pretty clearly within the age of Roger Goodell, are to maximise revenue and minimize public controversy.”

And for the general public, rookie dinners are “not the largest fish to fry,” said Gina Wright, the host of the “She Talks Football” channel on YouTube.

Football has deeper problems, she said, like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition amongst players who’ve suffered repeated blows to the pinnacle, and the scarcity of Black quarterbacks and owners.

“There are a number of things that go on in sports that we may not agree with,” she said. “When you literally needed to not participate or support any sport because there’s something you don’t agree with, you almost certainly wouldn’t be a sports fan in any respect, let’s be real.”

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