Sports

The $25,000 Rookie Dinner Has N.F.L. Players Divided

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, more than $20,000.

For many diners, that would seem an outlandish amount to spend on a meal, even for a large group. For athletes in the National Football League, it’s a decades-old ritual known as the rookie dinner — an exorbitant meal that new players are expected to finance for their teammates.

In 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 become 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 part of the game.”

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas hosted a rookie dinner in 2010 that cost Dez Bryant, of the Cowboys, $55,000.Credit…Jonathan Zizzo for The New York Times

In 2019, D’Andre Walker, a fifth-round draft pick and a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans, posted a dinner bill totaling more than $10,000 from Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in Nashville. That same year, Deebo Samuel, a wide 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 among 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 form of hazing that can have damaging financial consequences.

In June, the former N.F.L. player Torrey Smith spoke out against rookie dinners — a ritual that is widely accepted among teams.Credit…Dave Cooper for The New York Times

“This dinner sets a precedent for a lifestyle that the majority of players cannot afford to do and shouldn’t be living anyway,” Mr. Smith said in a recent interview. He decided to speak out after watching a video from the football-focused podcast “The Pivot,” in which the first-year New York Jets player Garrett Wilson was told about the cost of rookie dinners for the first time.

“A lot of nonplayers were like, ‘What is the big deal? You are rich,’” Mr. Smith said. But, he added, this type of overspending can be a slippery slope, especially in a sport where a player’s success isn’t always guaranteed.

The N.F.L. is the highest-grossing professional sports league in the United States, with estimated revenues of $11 billion in 2021. Yet its players — who enter the league in their early 20s and become six- or seven-figure earners overnight — make less than many professional male athletes in other sports. They are not guaranteed contracts, and the average length of their careers is just short of three years, according to the N.F.L. Players Association. A 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than 15 percent of N.F.L. players had declared bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the profession.

Teams in other professional sports have initiation rituals, and some even host rookie dinners, but those in the N.F.L. tend to get the most attention online, given the size of the teams and, subsequently, the dinner bill.

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

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

Garrett Wilson, the 2022 first-round draft pick for the New York Jets, appeared on an episode of “The Pivot” podcast in June. This clip, in which he learns about rookie dinners, went viral.CreditCredit…The Pivot

Rookie dinners are usually divided up by positions on the field; if there are multiple rookies in a single position, they split the bill. And how 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 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 are going to do it,” he said, “and because you did it, you are going to make another rookie do it.”

Mr. Crowder said the players who go broke are the ones who buy three or four houses, or who have children with multiple partners and pay child or spousal support. “A rookie dinner isn’t putting nobody in 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 close to $30,000, about 5 percent of the $588,000 paycheck he’d received for part of the season.

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

From left, Fred Taylor, Ryan Clark and Channing Crowder, former N.F.L. players and hosts of “The Pivot” podcast, say the rookie dinner bills that are shared online don’t tell the entire story.Credit…Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

Mr. Clark, who was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they won the Super Bowl in 2009, said veterans usually look out for younger players during these dinners. When he joined the New York Giants in 2002 as an undrafted player, the veterans offered to split the bill with him. And the public sees only the highest dinner tabs on social media, even though they are usually much less, added Mr. Taylor, a first-round pick in 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 at least the 1970s, when first-year players received sizable bonuses and were sometimes guaranteed to make more than veteran players. The dinners were seen as a way to recirculate that money among the team.

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

“It speaks to a general culture of football, which treats young players as imminently disposable,” Mr. Leitch said. “There is always another coming, someone will always want your job, so you need to get along and go along and do what you are told, or you will 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 the program with almost no understanding of finance. He teaches them the basics, like how to open a bank account or cash a check.

Greg Hopkins, who runs a nonprofit called Changing the Community that trains young football players, said some of his trainees have little experience with making financial decisions.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

“For rookies coming in, especially if you are not as high-drafted, you should not even be thinking about spending that type of money,” he said of rookie dinners, because you have no idea how long your career 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 family members, he has always seen rookie dinners as wasteful. Instead, he taught Mr. Smith and other rookies how to save.

“As opposed to guys going out and spending $50,000 to $75,000 on dinner, I just felt like dudes would be better served going out and helping their mom instead,” 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 group of veterans to give $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 put a stop to rookie dinners, Mr. Leitch added. “The N.F.L.’s only real priorities, as we’ve seen pretty clearly in the age of Roger Goodell, are to maximize revenue and minimize public controversy.”

And for the public, rookie dinners are “not the biggest 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 among players who have suffered repeated blows to the head, and the scarcity of Black quarterbacks and owners.

“There are a lot of things that go on in sports that we may not agree with,” she said. “If you literally had to not participate or support any sport because there is something you don’t agree with, you probably wouldn’t be a sports fan at all, let’s be real.”

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