Panthers’ Russell Okung Becomes First NFL Player to Be Paid in Bitcoin

“Pay me in Bitcoin” has come true for NFL player Russell Okung – some 20 months and a 273% price increase after he first tweeted that demand in May 2019. Okung will be the first player from any major U.S. sports league to be paid in bitcoin.

The arrangement comes by way of Zap, the bitcoin startup founded by Jack Mallers. Zap’s Strike product enables traditional paychecks tp be converted into BTC.

Okung’s just happens to be quite large. His $13 million yearly salary is being split fifty-fifty between bitcoin and fiat, Mallers said Monday in a phone interview with CoinDesk.

Mallers said other pro athletes, including unnamed members of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees, have also begun onboarding to the program. Mallers said the NFL and NFL Players Association had to be involved to get approval. It is unclear if such approvals are also required for the NBA and MLB. 

Technically speaking, Okung is still being paid in fiat. Behind the scenes, however, is Lightning Network magic: Strike receives a direct deposit from the Panthers and then swaps dollars for bitcoin. That bitcoin is then sent to a cold-storage wallet held by Okung, Mallers said. (To recap, Lightning is a secondary system for sending bitcoin in a cheaper and quicker fashion compared to using the Bitcoin network itself.)

The Okung announcement also serves to tease another bit of news from Zap. Strike can now be used as a checking account through partnerships with two yet-to-be-named banks, according to Mallers.

Mallers said Strike is now processing into the “seven figures” of monthly volume and expects that number to grow as more big names join Strike’s newest payment method. Strike does not currently receive any cut for processing payments, Mallers said, but it might as the product gains adoption.

“It’s a big, big deal that we found a way to allow any individual to receive a percent of their labor in bitcoin,” Mallers said.

As Okung expressed in a recent CoinDesk op-ed, the lineman’s journey to bitcoin began long before that May 2019 tweet. The 32-year-old Okung said he’s long held frustrations with the lack of economic power professional athletes – particularly Black athletes – currently hold. Okung views Bitcoin as a means to regain financial independence and has launched an advocacy project in that vein.

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