When we hopped on a call last Friday, Russell Okung had just left his last practice of the week, but he couldn’t get away without his teammates blasting him over Bitcoin.
“Every single day,” Okung laughed over the phone when I asked him how often they give him flack. Towering like a modern day Ajax at 6’5” and 310 lbs, it’s hard to imagine anyone ragging on the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle for anything, really — unless, of course, the subject matter is something as absurd and arcane as that Bitcoin thing.
A thing which, very likely, was absent from the Los Angeles Chargers locker room talk before Okung made his very public entrance into the Bitcoin ecosystem (This involved his tweeting out “Pay me in bitcoin” on May 13, 2019, which immediately sent shivers of affirmation down Bitcoin Twitter’s spine).
Now, Okung isn’t the only NFL player to ask for his salary in bitcoin (Buffalo Bills backup QB Matt Barkley has as well), but he’s certainly the most vocal Bitcoin proponent in the NFL (sorry Matt, maybe next year, bud). Since his (in)formal entrance into the Bitcoin sphere, Okung has made the world’s preeminent cryptocurrency a topic of conversation on both social media and within his professional circle. Bitcoin’s newest celebrity ambassador even launched his own events brand Bitcoin Is _, which he told me he views as more of a “revival” or “awakening” than anything else.
“This isn’t an event, it’s not a conference, it’s not a Meetup,” he said. “This is a revival, man! Bitcoin feels like a renaissance, the great awakening or enlightenment, and that’s what we’re trying to capture. There’s a lot of stuff we can do with Bitcoin Is__ and it’s getting a lot of transactions. People want to be a part of it. The events we do will be this collision of culture and influence and entertainment and finance and economics. Because Bitcoin is for everyone.”
Its inaugural installment kicked off over Labor Day Weekend 2019, as Bitcoin vets and novices alike packed into a lofted event space in downtown L.A. to learn more about, well, what Bitcoin is, and what led one of the NFL’s elite blindside tackles to take a dive down the rabbit hole.
“What the Hell Is Bitcoin?”
At a pre-event media Q&A, I asked Okung how his teammates and professional circle have reacted to his fresh jaunt into Bitcoin.
“Ultimately, people appreciate conviction,” he responded, adding that, of course, reactions are a mixed bag — some jest, some say its a scam and some are legitimately curious. He’s nothing if not persistent in his conviction, however, and this has warmed some skeptics.
“They’ll buy without telling me, and they’ll pull me off to the side, like ‘Hey man, I bought some.’ And I’m like, man, tell everybody else!” he continued. “The guys that give me the most crap about it are the ones who end up buying bitcoin,” he added later over the phone.
During the Q&A, he also went into the behind-the-scenes of his “Pay me in Bitcoin” tweet, which involved a very abbreviated meeting with Ed McGuire, the Charger’s executive vice president of football administration and player finance, or resident “money guy.”
“I asked if they could pay me in bitcoin,” Okung recalled. “With this stoic face he looked at me and said, ‘What the hell is bitcoin?’”
And that was that, though Okung told me he “asks a lot.” His initial plea took place in May 2019, around the same time as his tweet. This was also the same time that Okung definitively “took the dive” down the rabbit hole, though he had known about Bitcoin since 2017.
Like many of us, though, it wasn’t until later that he had the “aha!” moment that made Bitcoin click for him. For Okung, whose parents hail from Nigeria, this moment came from visiting his ancestral home in the 2019 off-season. Needing extra cash after an expensive night out, Okung tapped his bank account back in the States for a wire transfer, but the bank wouldn’t honor the request.
“My time in Nigeria was eye-opening for me,” he told me. The bank refused to send Okung his money, and that’s when he discovered it wasn’t actually his money after all. This, ultimately, is what really pushed him toward Bitcoin.
Cypherpunk Meets the Gridiron
That Okung would become a trailblazer for an off-the-beaten-path monetary alternative is pretty on-brand for the NFL standout. Decorated with a Superbowl ring and a 2012 Pro Bowl appearance (not to mention plenty of collegiate accolades), the first-round draft pick opted to represent himself as a free agent after his rookie contract with the Seattle Seahawks expired; this led to a one-year stint with the Broncos, his four-year, $53 million deal with the Chargers and his second Pro Bowl in 2017. Okung’s decision to go agentless, which he defended in a 2015 essay entitled “Betting on Myself,” feels a bit like the self-reliant, maverick-punk ethos that permeates FOSS development and Bitcoin’s culture — in essence, an easy fit.
Accustomed as he is to the hard knocks of the NFL’s brutal competition, contract negotiations and team jumping, going from betting on himself to betting on bitcoin was a natural transition.
“I think the core concept of bitcoin has always resonated with me in some way,” he said. “Whether it’s been my own personal journey understanding my finances for representing myself, writing contract negotiations in the NFL or even my role in understanding labor and the average person and the issues that they run into. The underlying premise of all of these interactions compound one another, because it all comes down to individuality and one's own sovereignty and the ability to be in control of one’s own life. I always thought about that, but I never knew what it would mean when it comes to my money. As the old adage says, ‘Money talks.’”
It sure does. And sometimes people talk for it. The more Okung has delved into the topic on Twitter and in person, the more his teammates and other friends have become curious or have come around on the topic. He wouldn’t name names or give specifics, but he did say that “athletes are hitting [him] up all the time.”
But don’t call expecting financial advice. That’s not his place, he cautioned, saying his mission is to educate and clear up misconceptions. This is especially important in the world of wealth-showered athletes who often hire financial advisors because some of these advisors, steeped in traditional finance, see bitcoin as a ponzi scheme or scam.
Okung wants to pull back the veneer of this banal and erroneous perspective. Often times, this furnishes a healthy discussion on the principles of money and what constitutes value. For NFL players, more than half of whom battle bankruptcy or financial duress after retirement, it’s critical to teach them “about the creation as well as the maintenance of wealth.” This, Okung said, “is the key to achieving what they’re looking for.”
“The core theme of what I try to teach people is: what does it look like for you to master financial independence?” he explains. “And I think that resonates with them. There have been people who have completely turned over, especially after pushing me on the economics of bitcoin and volatility. They were averse to bitcoin at first and then, when they understood I was serious about it, they start to think about what money truly is and what its foundations are — a lot of those guys have changed their minds.”
Bringing Bitcoin to the People
Inherent in Okung’s response above is the power of influence; the influence of a trusted friend and his earnest passion.
As one of the NFL’s highest-paid left tackles and now something of a Bitcoin celebrity, Okung said he recognizes his position and “the power of brand and being authentic and truthful about things that you believe in.”
“When I speak about it or show some level of enthusiasm for Bitcoin, it’s great for the ecosystem and for the average person to see somebody taking a stance in an area that is not traditionally pro-Bitcoin,” he continued. He added that his Bitcoin-infused Twitter presence has resulted in entertainers and other celebrities “following, liking, tweeting, retweeting and DMing” him.
Of course, if the virus is going to spread, we’ll need more than Okung, Akon and Tony Hawk to sing Bitcoin’s praises (though this is still great for Bitcoin). To Okung, this is the point of Bitcoin Is_: “to meet people where they are and unpack bitcoin in a really simple way.”
“Bitcoin can be a multitude of different things to different people. When we think about spreading this gospel — that’s what we like to say, that we’re spreading the gospel of Bitcoin — then we want it to be relatable,” he said. “That’s the first step. We want any individual to know who we are as people. And then we can engage in a meaningful way.”
The end result of this engagement, hopefully, is a fusion of culture and finance that will bring Bitcoin to more users. To get there, though, Okung thinks Bitcoin’s current ambassadors need more “conviction” to spread Bitcoin beyond the confines of its staunchest proponents and into the hands of everyone else.
“We talk about mass adoption, but what does that look like?” he asks. “Having a bunch of Meetups with a bunch of people I already know and who are just like me? That won’t work. If I could challenge people in this industry, it would be getting creative about how to get people involved. Ultimately, if this movement is controlled by the people, then people will come from all shapes and sizes, and colors and ethnicities and genders. We want as many of them as possible in order for this to accelerate and last.”
Bitcoin Adoption in the NFL?
Bitcoin Is_, possibly the most diverse Bitcoin event I’ve ever been to, is off to a good start. For his own part, Okung will continue to “not only teach people about Bitcoin, but teach them how to explain Bitcoin.” In this way, Okung lives and breathes Bitcoin Is_ every day. As you’re reading this, he might be selling bitcoin to some of his teammates, the Chargers’ general manager or the GM of another team.
Really, though. In our conversation, he said he’s spoken to a few NFL GM about a bitcoin salary option. When asked who he’s been talking to and how receptive they are, he prudently pleaded the Fifth.
Hopefully, if bitcoin continues to defy the expectations of skeptics and Okung’s call-to-educational-arms with Bitcoin Is_ turns out to be effective, he won’t have to wait too long before he becomes the first NFL player paid in bitcoin — and before he convinces league GMs to offer the option to other players, as well.