WASHINGTON -- The interior of the defensive line can be an intimidating place. Tackles and noseguards know they're going to be hit. But where will the contact come from? Will it be at the point of attack by the person directly across from them, by the blockers on their inside or outside shoulders? Or will it occur just across the line of scrimmage by a guard or tackle pulling from the opposite side?
David Carter was prepared to handle those challenges last year in his rookie season with the Arizona Cardinals. At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, he was big and agile and confident enough to protect himself. What he was not prepared to deal with were all the other things coming at him -- the business of football, as Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith likes to call it.
"Every player coming into the NFL is walking on eggshells," Carter said Friday night. "There's just so much you don't know."
The fortunate players figure it out over time, although history shows the odds are against them. A 2009 Sports Illustrated report estimated that 78 percent of players are bankrupt or struggling financially within two years of leaving the game. That's not completely shocking, considering the average career span for NFL players is just under four years, meaning many of them are out of the league right around the time they start to understand that football is a business as much as it is a game.
Adisa Bakari, president of the sports and entertainment division at Dow Lohnes law firm, regularly thinks about how to reverse the statistic. With a roster of 30 clients that ranges from Pro Bowlers Maurice Jones-Drew, Antoine Bethea and Matt Forte to undrafted rookies Davin Meggett, Ronald Leary and Dominique Davis, he ultimately concluded the need to do one thing: Be proactive.
Last week he brought in two dozen of his players for a three-day "life" retreat that focused on how to succeed as players and as businessmen, with the ultimate goal of ensuring his clients don't become the wrong types of statistics.
"The NFL across the board is becoming a much younger league," Bakari said. "Part of that is due to the enhanced physicality of the game, but part of it is also by design because it's cheaper to have younger players. In dealing with those younger players, you're dealing with men who have less business savvy, less sophistication as it relates to their finances, so it's even more imperative in our minds to bring our young clients in to talk about and be taught how to deal with the business of the NFL."
The retreat began Thursday night with a session on personal branding, during which the players were educated about the powers and pitfalls of social media. That was followed the next day with a trip to Players Association headquarters, where they were addressed by Smith, who in March was elected to a second term as executive director; George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs; Jason Belser, a senior director of player services and development; and Tim Christine, the union's director of security.
"Over the next 10 years, $50 billion of wealth will go to the players under the new collective bargaining agreement," Smith said. "The issue is, how do we utilize it?"
One of Smith's goals is to get his members to think of themselves as heads of corporations and not just athletes. That means understanding how to be professionals and make money work for them. Among other things, he pointed out that 20 percent of players are not maxing out their 401(k) programs, meaning they're leaving free money on the table. He also told them that a meager 30 percent of available monies for back-to-school programs are used by players.
"The real issue is how well you utilize football to put you in a situation where you and your family are fine for the rest of your lives," said Smith, citing the statistics from that 2009 SI report. Belser piggy-backed the comment by stating that it typically takes 24 months for players to find sustained employment after leaving the game. The comment stuck with group members, who still were talking about it hours later.
Union officials said it was the first time an agent had brought a large number of clients to Washington to discuss life beyond football, with Smith adding: "It's great to see an agent taking responsibility to pull all his players together to talk about the real issues of the business of football. Adisa has always had foresight how he looks at his role as an agent, in terms of making sure his players are maximizing their role in the business of football."
Players made the short walk across the street to the Dow Lohnes offices after leaving the PA headquarters. That afternoon and the following morning they participated in sessions that included: "Athletes and the Media," "What Companies Look For When Choosing a Celebrity Endorser," Evaluating Business Proposals," "Leveraging Your NFL Success to Ensure Post-NFL Success," and "Avoiding Financial Pitfalls." Experts in each area were brought in to address the players and answer questions. It was not unlike what happens at the rookie symposium, only there seemed to be greater interaction because the groups were smaller, veterans were mixed with rookies, and the players seemed more comfortable opening up to each other because they were among "family."
"There's so much you don't know when you come into the league," said Carter. "When you're able to be in an atmosphere like this, with people who have been through it or have an expertise in an area, it helps calm the nerves."
The final panel was arguably the most important. It featured veterans (players on their second or third multi-year contract) sitting before guys on their first contracts and talking about how to last in the league. Topics included taking care of your body, handling friends and family, dealing with women -- all the things you'd feel comfortable talking to a close mentor about, but might be wary of saying among outsiders.
When it was over, the players exchanged numbers, shook hands, hugged and hopped in cars headed to Reagan National Airport. Bakari tried to see each one off from the hotel across from his office. The fatigue of the three-day effort was apparent in his sleepy eyes. But the satisfaction of a job well done was also apparent.
"This is a league where a majority of the players are now one contract and done, and they don't get to that second and certainly not the third contract," he said. "It's truly that second contract that creates intergenerational wealth, legacy wealth, so we also want our younger clients to learn what it means to be a professional and to reaffirm what we tell them in the very beginning of the recruiting process, that they're no different than corporate executives. The fact that they play football does not make them less of a business person than a traditional executive. It's important to understand that and what's involved with that. This wasn't an ending for us; it was a beginning. We plan on making it an annual event."