Bitcoin is Freedom with Russell Okung


Peter McCormack: We should talk about Bitcoin!

Russell Okung: Okay, let’s do it.

Peter McCormack: Come on Russ, what is Bitcoin?

Russell Okung: What is Bitcoin? It’s funny when I explained Bitcoin or at least when one of my teammates asked me, cause that’s usually been where most of my dialogue is particularly about Bitcoin and say, “man, what is Bitcoin?” I said, “well what is freedom? What is independence?”

I think the one of the reasons that I ask that question and why it resonates so well with my teammates is because I think when you look at the construct, especially with an athlete, what tends to happen is, all throughout our careers I guess, because we’ve essentially been playing this game since we’ve been 10 years old until adulthood, there’s always been somebody sort of managing our lives and serving as some sort of facilitator and manager and agent and some form of advocate.

At the end of the day, what they all do, is they have their hand out and they want a piece. They say, “well, in order for you to do that or do whatever you’re attempting to do, the cost of participating is my fee.” So when I’ve talked about Bitcoin and I tried to explain what it is, I said, “hey, imagine a world, right where you have inextricable value associated to yourself and there’s no fee.

There’s complete independence, there’s complete sovereignty over how you want to live your life. You are exceptional and you can live that way, not in the same accordance with whatever government or whatever central authority, maybe over your life” and I think a lot of guys get that. So when somebody asked me, “hey, what is Bitcoin?” It’s “hey man, do you like freedom? Do you like independence?” They’re like, “yeah, I do”, “well Bitcoin is for you!”

Peter McCormack: Didn’t you negotiate your own contract?

Russell Okung: I did, that was fun! It’s funny, when I decided to represent myself in contract negotiations with the NFL, I didn’t realize I would get so much pushback and I think the reason I got most of the pushback was because people weren’t necessarily used to, I guess the asset coming to them and saying, “no, I speak for myself. I do things in a way which I can prioritize things on my own and decide how I want my future to be.”

People aren’t used to that, they want to put you in this bubble, this box. I sound like Kanye right now! Doesn’t he say that a lot? But it’s the truth, because I think at times people, if you give them the opportunity, especially Big Brother or The Man or whatever we want to call them, they will try to assign their own values to who you are and I think me deciding to represent myself in free agency was completely contradictory to that.

Peter McCormack: I think a lot of people have been fascinated since you’ve kind of arrived in the Bitcoin world.

Russell Okung: I hope so!

Peter McCormack: I think one of the most interesting things as well for me, is the fact that you’ve just gone straight to Bitcoin. You’ve bypassed all the bullshit, all the shitcoins, you’re here, you’re pretty much a maximalist which is really interesting. I think therefore it’d be kind of interesting, because I haven’t actually heard the origin story for you for Bitcoin. How did you first discover it and what made it click for you?

Russell Okung: That’s such a great question. I would say that there has been a series of events in my life which sort of compounded on one another in order to bring me to this conclusion. I come from a family of immigrants, my family is Nigerian and I remember there are all these occurrences growing up where we spent so much time going to Western Union.

It was always about taking care of your family overseas and I even remember just the pain, my mom would have in having to pay additional fees and family is calling and they need some help. You’re trying to do all these things, because in America you are living the American dream, therefore your job and your responsibility, it’s an attempt to at least take care of your family in some way and I think when I look back on those experiences, and I think at the time I didn’t really understand them until now, is when you’re in a situation where you’re needing to pay the piper at all times, it’s really difficult.

So I would say that, plus even my journey as a football player and even going into the NFL, I also serve as the Vice President of the executive committee of the NFL PA. So I think I get an opportunity to think a lot about labor, what free market capitalism is and how it affects employment, on our side we think about wages and working conditions and benefits and all those sorts of things.

A lot of times we’re constantly having to figure out, “okay, well how do we sort of set the minimum standard for all players?” What we end up sort of running into is the authority or management, or the NFL in this situation is constantly trying to dictate to us how we manage our money and how money is allotted to us in order to do certain things.

So when I think about my childhood experiences, which is growing up as a African American in tandem with my experiences in the league and the NFL, it kind of brings me to this point where I started asking myself, “man, what does sovereignty over my life look like? What does it look like to be in control and to experience freedom in totality?”

Peter McCormack: Do you remember your first Bitcoin purchase? Do you remember the experience?

Russell Okung: Yeah, I actually do. There was one experience in particular, so I think it’s definitely worth bringing up. I went to Nigeria maybe, maybe like 5/6 months ago or so and I remember being out there and it was an incredible experience to go out there and see my family. When you’re going to any country you want to take enough cash to sustain you throughout your entire visit, so I probably had too good of a time and spent too much money.

I remember calling my bank and was just like, “hey, I’m going to withdraw some money for my stay” and I mind you, I had already put a note on my account suggesting that I would be in Nigeria, that I would potentially be withdrawing more money. I’m not going to say who that bank was, but I remember trying to withdraw some money and I’m talking to one of the people at customer services and they said, “hey we don’t do business with Nigeria, therefore we can’t send your money at this this time.”

I’m just like, “wait, what do you mean you can’t send me my money? It’s my money!” I realized at that moment in time, it actually wasn’t my money, that as a custodian, they had the ability to allot money on the basis in which they saw fit. It completely wrecked me because I’d been speculating on Bitcoin for years and I’d hear all sorts of things about why independence was so valuable and truly owning your wealth was important.

Here I was in a situation where I was facing that head on in a third world country, where I didn’t have access to any dollars. My net worth is all over the internet, so imagine what I’ve been able to accumulate over a certain amount of time and me not being able to access that. I mean I put my body on the line for that money, my mind on the line for that and here I am and I can’t even touch my money! That was completely crazy to me.

Peter McCormack: Also, before we get into a bit more detail, you’ve got to tell the story about trying to negotiate your contract to be paid in Bitcoin! I’ve got questions about that, I’m like, if you were to negotiate that Bitcoin at $20,000 grand, that would have been a problem! But tell us through your thought process and what actually happened.

Russell Okung: Yeah, so serving as my own agent, I get a chance to sit down with the General Manager and the money guy. That’s the tweet right there! I get a chance to sit down with those guys and I don’t need directly have any sort of advocate for me who can speak to them on my behalf. So I remember the contract was already negotiated and obviously I’m going into the third year of my deal and I go up to see the General Manager.

Man, so he’s an older white gentleman, a really good guy and he’s probably in his 60s, mid 60s and I go up to him and I say, “hey, I want half of my salary paid to me in Bitcoin.” And he had the most stoic look on his face and he’s a super smart guy, he’s been around the team forever, he’s probably heard everything, every excuse for a player to come back and renegotiate his contract and here I was saying, look, “I don’t want more money, instead, how about you just give me half of my salary in Bitcoin.”

He looked at me and was just like, “what the fuck is Bitcoin?” So like, here I am trying to explain, “it’s like digital gold and it can be an asset. There’s this thing called a ledger” and he’s just like, “no.”

Peter McCormack: But you’re not the only one, Matt Barkley, he’s tried as well, hasn’t he?

Russell Okung: Yeah, I don’t think he had any more success than I did.

Peter McCormack: Nope! There is a way you can get your salary half paid in Bitcoin.

Russell Okung: Oh please, tell me!

Peter McCormack: You need to speak to Alan Lane from Silvergate who’s here.

Russell Okung: I think he was harassing me earlier.

Peter McCormack: He said he can do it for you!

Russell Okung: I’ll talk to him!

Peter McCormack: All right, so let’s talk a bit now about the NFL. Obviously you’re a superstar in the NFL, it’s great for Bitcoin that you are a vocal supporter of it because it helps Bitcoin reach wider communities. Firstly, somebody asked you a great question earlier, but there was only a few of us in the room, so I’m going to ask it again. What’s the experience been like talking to your teammates about it? Have you converted any? Are you getting laughed at? What’s the kind of general experience with your teammates, because you’re the Bitcoin guy, right?

Russell Okung: Well it’s better than being the pizza guy, but I’ll go as the Bitcoin guy! It’s been funny, because I think when you’re dealing with NFL players, there are so many gatekeepers. There’s so many managers and agents and financial advisors and people that they rely on for information. To put on top of that, you have this propaganda that all NFL players which will be divorced or bankrupt at the end of their career and they say the number’s been like 70% or something and I don’t even know if that’s really true.

Peter McCormack: I’ve done that and I’m not even a player.

Russell Okung: Well, as soon as you became a Rams fan, your fate was sealed. Just kidding! You threw me off there, why did you do that?

Peter McCormack: I was thinking about my divorce.

Russell Okung: So there’s just all these people that have their hands in players’ lives and here I am presenting this concept, which I would say in traditional finance, in our economics, people are completely averse to and I’m leading with this question, it’s just like, “man, what does it look for you to truly own your wealth and to have nobody else being in control of that for you?” I think it’s a compelling narrative. It’s definitely a compelling narrative because I think to some extent guys want to be in an ownership role and I would say many players are similar to myself.

They were raised in sort of the urban plight of America and there are working class to lower middle income African American families. So when they’re engaging with the sport, they’re forsaking their health and their condition, all to generate enough wealth to take care of their family and they want to do it forever and for generations to come. When I’m presenting this idea of Bitcoin, it’s a little bit hard to swallow at first, because they see the volatility and they see how things are moving.

But I think little by little you start chipping away and what I’ve seen is that there are a lot of players that are similar to myself, that weren’t necessarily open to discussing it and man, you just keep going after them! Before you know it, I’ve had guys come up to me and say, “hey man, I bought that Bitcoin”, but they never say in front of everybody else!

So they want to make me look like the terrible guy, the guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and they’ll take me off to the side and say, “hey, yeah I got some Bitcoin man, to the moon baby, to the moon!” I’m like “oh thanks!” So it’s been fun.

Peter McCormack: So an interesting thing for me that I learned recently, as somebody who has grown up in England, we didn’t get much football on the TV, obviously we get games every year now, which is amazing in London, but when I grew up, you knew of a few players like Jerry Rice and Steve Young, because the 49ers were big back then.

I found out recently, firstly with the NBA, the average career is less than three years, which blew my mind because it never crossed my mind! Then somebody told me in the NFL it’s actually shorter. So I’m imagining there’s a scenario where people could come in very quickly, suddenly they’re earning good money and then suddenly they’re not. Where is the intersection for Bitcoin here, in kind of financial education for sports stars?

Russell Okung: I think it’s important to think about Bitcoin and I like to say “Bitcoin is freedom”, because ultimately freedom is about one’s choice and the ability to exercise those choices. Even precluding to that, when I think about freedom, I think justice is a prerequisite of freedom. So when I’m talking about these backgrounds in which players come from, which some would say is extremely oppressive and they definitely went their way and the goal for a lot of these players is to make it to the big leagues.

Unfortunately you’re in a situation where you have 2 to 3 years of your average career. We’ve invested so long, so much time and commitment since for most guys, since they’ve been 10 years old. So I think the ideal of Bitcoin, in terms of being able to create real wealth for yourself, it resonates and it really sticks to a lot of players, especially when the career span and your earning potential is so short.

The way that I’ve heard a lot of people look at it, is they look at real estate, they look at stocks and bonds, but if people can think about their wealth and their portfolio of about 5% to 10%, which is how I initially was thinking about it, I think it’s okay!

Peter McCormack: But is it Andrew Luck, you said should put his whole, what $29 million in?

Russell Okung: I didn’t say that! Andrew is a really smart guy. He’s a peculiar person, he still uses a flip phone and so I don’t even know how he lives in this world! But next time I meet him I’ll probably try to reach out to him and have the conversation about Bitcoin with him.

Peter McCormack: That’s a real issue as well now within the NFL with injuries and people concerned about the effect on them, are you noticing that the players now are having to really consider their whole life? They’re not just having to consider, “right, I need to get in the team”, they’re having to think about the next 10, 20 years. Is there a support infrastructure to help people prepare for this whole career? Because it’s gone from me thinking, “oh this is amazing, you’re a superstar!” To actually, “oh shit, I really don’t want to go and get a bad injury. I really must manage my finances correctly. I’ve got to negotiate the right contract.” There seems like a lot of pressure in this?

Russell Okung: Yeah, it is a lot of pressure and our backgrounds aren’t necessarily the same as our counterparts and peers. We’ve been working since we’ve been 10 and then you go throughout college. In the NCAA, you’re working 50, 60 hours a week! I don’t even see how it’s possible for us to get an entire full education at the same time, but we’re fortunate enough for the NFL PA, which is the union arm of the NFL, that we spend a lot of time thinking about post-career benefits and ways to support players.

I’ve even had the time to talk about, “what would it look like for us to put a certain percentage of money that…” We get accredited seasons for the amount of years that we play and it goes towards annuity plans etc. So what would it look like to put certain percentage of that in Bitcoin? It has been the best performing asset class in 10 years, it makes complete sense. But again, people think more about the downside.

So I’m constantly trying to push players to think differently about, “hey, where do you want to put your wealth? Where do you want to put any sort of investment into your future.” I don’t give investment advice, I just want to pose an ideal to them, for them to think about, for the players to think about.

Peter McCormack: So college football is something that I’ve discovered recently as something that’s actually incredible. I really enjoy college football as well and one of the things I’ve noticed, is that this is incredible! You’ve got stadiums with 80,000 – 100,000 people selling out for college games and you’ve just said these are people who are putting in 50/60 hours in a week, so they might not be getting an education. So in some ways they are gambling their education for the chance of making the draft, right?

Russell Okung: Sure.

Peter McCormack: Are they compensated outside of their education and is that something that you think they should be, because if they’re filling up a stadium, there must be money in there to support these people, or is it just a big risk and if they don’t make the draft, then they’re essentially on the scrap heap?

Russell Okung: Yeah, I think that’s a very difficult question. I’ve definitely been an advocate of the Fair Pay to Play Act that’s been pushed out here in California. I think our government in California, it’s really progressive in LA and seeing players just like anybody else and having civil liberties. I think that’s the battle that people have been fighting since the beginning of America, that we foundationally have those basic principles in America.

As for college players to not be able to make money off their likeness and imaging, I really believe it’s un-American. Some people would make the case and say, “well, hey there, they’re getting an education!” But the value of education, especially when they’re not really participating fully in school, is insane to me. 

So I think when we talk about sovereignty, when we talk about one’s ability to monetize their likeness, I think it’s something that we need to take a harder look at, because the institutions, the NCAA, these schools, they’re making money hand over foot. You have all these Head Coaches making $8/$10 million a year and nobody disputes that they’re making too much. Nobody says anything about that because it’s the free market. Yet the same standard isn’t applied to all of college athletes and that irks me.

Peter McCormack: All right okay. Well listen, obviously this is an amazing event, turned around in about a month is it? Big props to George over there as well! You’ve managed to bring an amazing group of people here, that all want to support the event and help with it, but what’s the goal? What’s the mission here for you? What’s the big idea? Where are you going with this?

Russell Okung: Yeah, so I’d love to talk about that and one, shout out to the team. You guys in a month, what you guys have been able to create and put this together and whether it’s on social media, can we give them a round of applause please? Thank you all so much, thank you all so much for what you are doing! So I will say, when I think about the grander vision, we want to get as many people involved into Bitcoin as possible, because here’s the thing.

When I first bought Bitcoin, it took me two years of speculation to understand what Bitcoin really was. But when I saw I fully had a grasp of it, it was life altering and in my head, I was like, “man, how do we get this to people?” When I sort of look at the people in Bitcoin or people in crypto, I think what’s lacking is that I don’t know if there’s any real conviction. I think people are fine having the conversations and debating one another all day, but man, what about the grind and the legwork that you need to do, to be in these communities?

Now I’ve got a good friend who’s here right now, he’s sitting around and he has a church out in Santa Ana and he talk a lot about social justice and equity for people. If anything, I think that Bitcoiners should be rushing to every single opportunity that they can, to show that Bitcoin really will change people’s lives and we’re going to find the least and the most downtrodden people to be able to support.

So when I think about what Bitcoin is as a platform, I more think about that there are real issues that we can solve and that the more people that get into this, the better it is. It’s money for the people and I think that people can drive this and I think they can be a forced to be reckoned with. I love it and when I talk to my team and when we conversated about where this thing’s going to head up to, man we got crazy ambitions and we want to do a lot of things.

We have events coming up throughout the year, which George will talk about more later on, we’re really excited about what’s coming up on the horizon.

Peter McCormack: All right, well look, final question and firstly thank you for inviting me here and giving me this opportunity to do this, it’s a real pleasure and honour. Just a final thing to close out, you’ve got a great group of people here, we know they’re pretty much all Bitcoiners, what message do you want to leave with people? What do you want them to take from this and what do you want them to go and do and what do you want the outcome from this event to be?

Russell Okung: I would like to say that people need to realize, especially the ones in here, that you are a representation of Bitcoin. So when we talk about what this thing is, it’s not just the technical jargon and your ability to regurgitate things you’ve already heard before, but are you relatable? Do you care about people? Because I think when you start out with that first and people know that I’m serious about you being able to experience everything you can in this very short life that we have, it actually changes the perspective!

For sure, thank you. So I literally go out of my way to talk to everybody about this and I leave with the same question, “is independence important to you? Is sovereignty important to you? I’ve got something for you man that you may like, just hear me out. I’m not trying to give you any investment advice, any of that, I just have something that may actually change your life.”

Peter McCormack: All right man, well listen, amazing, thank you again and just a round of applause for Russell!

Russell Okung: Thank you!