KJ Dillon's $16,255 dinner bill hints at pernicious side of NFL hazing culture

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Here’s what passes for a good time in the NFL. A group of veteran players gather up an unsuspecting rookie and take him out to dinner. Over the next few hours they order heaping slabs of steak and bottle upon bottle of wine from the restaurant’s secret storage chest. After, they wash it all down with a couple bottles of Dom Perignon.

When the bill arrives they propose a game. How about a little credit card roulette? Everyone throws their card in a hat and the waiter or waitress is asked to close their eyes then pull out a card. This is “the winner,” the one stuck with the check. Of course the game is rigged to be sure the rookie’s card will be selected. The bill makes his heart sink.

Maybe it’s $15,000.

Or $17,000.

Or $22,599.

Everybody laughs. Ha. Ha. Can you believe it? Oh the poor sap. There you go kid! Welcome to the league!

On Monday, that rookie was Houston Texans safety KJ Dillon who was handed a $16,255.20 bill for dinner with teammates. Included was $349.65 in sea bass and a whopping $7,770 of Hennessy Pardis Imperial. Not included was the gratuity, which should have been about $3,200 if Dillon was being only mildly generous. Buried deep in the check was a $12.95 Caesar salad that was apparently all Dillon ate according to his Twitter feed, where he placed a photograph of the bill and informed his followers that he didn’t even partake in the $7,770 of Hennessy since he doesn’t even drink.

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Texans’ rookie DB K.J. Dillon got stuck with the team’s tab ?. (via @K_DILLON20) pic.twitter.com/kb0qi1NESV


December 20, 2016

The whole thing made for a good joke around the Internet. Hey, look at the silly rookie! Until former NFL punter Adam Podlesh tweeted a public note to Dillon that read: “For those who don’t think the NFL player bankruptcy epidemic has anything to do with veterans passing down the culture…Exhibit A. [Dillon] is a rookie on IR with a split in his contract. After tip he spent almost 7% of his post-tax paragraph 5 salary this year … that is the same relative spending as a $50k a year new employee spending almost $3000 on his co-workers.”

Leave it to a punter to shame the meat-and-potato behemoths in the locker room. At some point athletes have to understand there is little redeeming social value in burying a supposedly beloved and trusted teammate with a staggering dinner bill. The legacy of professional athletes squandering their money is extreme. Ten thousand here. Twenty thousand there. Suddenly the whole pile is gone. Everybody shakes their head and mutters about another dumb athlete who couldn’t take care of what he earned.

There is little funny about the system of hazing that goes on in professional sports. Everyone wants to scorn the players who don’t take care of their earnings but they don’t want to address the ideology that makes it happen. When older players treat money as a plaything, what’s a younger player supposed to do? It’s not like Dillon could say no. Ryan Leaf once reportedly refused to pay for teammates’ meals his rookie year, they took revenge by taking his card and buying a group dinner without him.

“There’s no question that this sets the stage for high degrees of financial irresponsibility,” David E Martin, a financial advisor who has worked with athletes told the Guardian in an email. “The notion that reckless consumption is the normative behavior when an athlete first comes into high financial net worth sends a terrible message.”

Dillon has a contract that pays him $2.5m over the next four years. Most of us would consider this good money. But most of us don’t play a contact sport without guaranteed contracts. Once you add in taxes and agent fees that $2.5m might be closer to $1.5m provided he plays all of those four years. Considering then his take home is less than $400,000 annually, one $16,255.20 dinner bill won’t break him. But the idea behind a $16,255.20 bill could. And even if it doesn’t break Dillon, it will break someone else. A notion settles in players’ minds that money is something that can be tossed away quicker than it came.

“Most athletes go on to lament how their friendships often devolve into giving and lending money as a condition of friendship – a stage set by these hazing activities,” Martin said. “It is exceptionally harmful from a financial literacy and emotional level.”

You would have thought hazing would be on its way out after the NFL’s report on the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin ordeal in Miami a few years ago found harassment and bullying to be a constant part of the Dolphins offensive line’s culture. There seems little room in sports for 10th-grade antics. Not when players have become brands to themselves and their entire lives play out on social media.

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball ratified a new labor deal that banned the practice of dressing rookies as women, wisely deciding that clubhouse cross dressing might not be seen as good old fashioned fun in a tolerant society. Some players complained that baseball was destroying an essential character-building exercise as if giggling at teammates in hot pants and miniskirts wins championships. Maybe this was once a “thing” but cultures evolve and things change.

Dillon’s Twitter post soon disappeared after he posted his bill. Perhaps his teammates were ashamed at the fun they had at his expense – literally. Before he signed off, he took pains to say that older players had been buying him meals all season and he considered this to be payback. Maybe he was coerced to say this. Maybe he meant it. Maybe he found the whole $16,255.20 dinner bill to be funny, figuring it bought him the right to do the same to some player still in college and oblivious to the five-figure dinner check that looms in his future.

All in good fun, of course.

What’s better than taking a rookie for most of his week’s paycheck?

Laughs all around.

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