Wharton helps NFL players stay financially fit

Sports Illustrated reports that by the time former NFL players have been retired for two years, 78 percent have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce. A plethora of players, who once earned millions of dollars, find themselves broke or in severe debt.

The NFL-NFLPA Business Management and Entrepreneurship Program, operated by the Wharton Sports Business Initiative (WSBI), helps NFL players prepare for life after football by offering them information about business and financial issues.

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Over the past six years, about 35 players have participated in the program annually, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Troy Vincent, mid-level players and a few rookies.

Kenneth Shropshire, faculty director of the WSBI, says the lack of financial knowledge is a sports-wide issue, but football players are at an increased disadvantage because of their brief careers.

“Football players are uniquely positioned,” he says. “The negative is they have the shortest careers. They average three-and-a-half years and then they have to start a second life.” The positive, says Shropshire, is that many NFL players often have college degrees and are comfortable in the classroom setting.

College basketball players can enter the NBA Draft at age 19---normally after their freshman year, the so-called “one-and-done” players---and baseball and hockey players often join professional farm teams straight out of high school. Golf and tennis players regularly jump from high school to the pros too, some even sooner. College football players, however, must be three years removed from their high school graduation in order to qualify for the NFL Draft.

The Business Management and Entrepreneurship Program varies in length. In the past, students have attended two sessions spaced out over the course of a month while doing work in between. But most recently, they have participated in sessions that last three or four consecutive days. Players must apply to take part in the Wharton program, and the NFL screens the applicants.

[NFL players] are often just lied to. I have them read cases in which the salesman says, ‘This isn’t risky,’ and it is risky. And they lose all their money.”

Shropshire says while there have been a few changes to the program over the years, the basics have remained the same. It includes sessions on reading financial instruments, basic real estate transactions, legal issues, negotiations, estate planning, philanthropy and a session called “Investments vs. Scams.”

“Investment-wise, we always kind of joke and say, ‘No restaurants, bars or nightclubs,’” Shropshire says. “Those tend to be the investments that your buddies will approach you about. It’s not an uncool thing to have a bar, or a restaurant, or a club that you can invite your friends to, but they tend to be very difficult vehicles to make money with.”

William Tyson, an associate professor of legal studies, business ethics, accounting and management at Wharton and an associate professor at Penn Law School, heads a session on legal issues.

“I talk about the sorts of things they should be aware of as potential investors,” Tyson says. “I always tell them that professional athletes are common prey of financial predators.” He teaches case law and how courts resolve issues where it appears as if athletes have been ripped off, as well as insider trading and real estate entrepreneurship. 

Tyson, who also serves on the NFL Players Association advisory committee, says many football players are misled about financial risks.

“It’s not scams,” he says. “They’re often just lied to. I have them read cases in which the salesman says, ‘This isn’t risky,’ and it is risky. And they lose all their money.” He says players frequently contact him for investment advice.

Christopher Geczy, an adjunct associate professor of finance at Wharton and academic director of the Wharton Wealth Management Initiative, leads a session on finance, including how to evaluate a financial advisor and the basic fundamentals that players need to know about investing. He has players visit the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority website and look up their brokers and financial advisors in class.

“In some cases, even in the middle of class, they’ve called their financial advisors,” he says, “either to ask them questions or say, ‘Hey, way to go.’”

Geczy says he also stresses the importance of hiring advisors whom players can evaluate and monitor objectively—not their friends. “If you hire somebody with whom you’ve grown up, it’s really hard to fire them,” he says.

Shropshire and Tyson both say they are very much impressed by the intellect of the players in the program. “They’re sometimes the best students I have,”  says Shropshire. Tyson says the players “tackle their studies in the classroom the way they tackle their athletic prowess.”

“They work as hard at learning as they do in football,” he says. 

The ongoing NFL labor issues threaten to disrupt the program for this year. Asked if he expects there to be an NFL season, Shropshire says, “Eventually.”

Originally published on April 21, 2011