Most children who dream of being an NFL player never consider the harsh realities inherent in the job. Fans typically only think of NFL players in terms of the superstars who make millions on and off the field. Even active players fail to adequately realize their football mortality. Being an NFL player is, in essence, a temp job that you hope to hold onto as long as possible, knowing full well that it will come to an end sooner than you would like.
The NFL and the NFLPA make a concerted effort to help players with their post-football lives. The NFL Player Development department is an arm of the league office that specializes in helping players during and after their playing days.
I was fortunate to recently attend the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial program at Wharton Business School on the University of Pennsylvania campus. The BM&E program is one of the latest offerings made available to players trying to both better themselves and prepare for the inevitable.
"The program was started by Troy Vincent and Gene Upshaw because a lot of guys had business aspirations and opportunities but really no resources to help them," explains Jets fullback Tony Richardson, a member of the NFLPA executive committee.
A typical day in the seven-day program starts with breakfast, followed by two classroom sessions; lunch, followed by two more classes; and dinner, followed by one final meeting. Topics range from the stock market to real estate to entrepreneurship to negotiating tactics.
The success of the program is contingent upon the players choosing to be a part of it. Mandatory programs can only go so far. Mori Taheripour, one of the Wharton professors for the BM&E program, mentioned on a number of occasions the value of the "self-selecting" nature of the program. Programs are always more successful if the people attending are there because they want to be there, not because they have to.
So what do the players get out of it? In addition to basic financial analysis skills, perhaps the main focus is making sure players are more self-aware of both their football mortality as well as unique status in society. For an active NFL player, there is no time like the present to prepare for the future.
"This is a cool opportunity," Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie said. "You really have to make your initial networks and contacts now, while you are still playing. You have to lay the groundwork."
• Lack of Marketable Skills
One of the problems associated with playing in the NFL is that players often face a harsh reality the day their career comes to an end. For most of them, football is not only all they have ever known, but also all they have ever wanted to do. They are then thrust into a marketplace for which they often are ill-prepared.
Most non-football-playing twentysomethings are able to build up their skills and résumé during their early working years as they figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives going forward. They are hopefully working toward a sustainable career.
NFL players typically lack both marketable skills and relevant job experience once their usefulness as a player has run out. They may or may not have a college degree. I want to be very clear that I am in no way trying to paint a picture in which NFL players should receive pity for their lot in life. On the contrary, most people would agree that the opportunity to make hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of dollars at a young age is a remarkable opportunity few people ever receive.
The facts, however, can be startling. I have read a number of published reports during my career suggesting 78 percent of NFL players are divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after their careers are over. The NFL provides a good financial head start in life for the players who have saved their money, but it won't last long, especially if they want to maintain the same lifestyle, unless they are able to achieve gainful employment.
• Different strokes for different folks
The NFL goes to great lengths to help augment the lives of players with programs designed to enhance their quality of life as well as help develop certain life skills that may otherwise have been neglected. The rookie symposium was specifically designed in order to help prepare players for some of the potential problems they may face as they enter the league. There is no handbook in place for how to be young, wealthy and in the spotlight.
In addition to the rookie symposium, there is a life-skills team that travels annually to each NFL city in order to help players prepare for issues that may come about throughout the course of the year. Financial awareness, domestic relations and decision-making are just some of the topics that are broached. These topics are usually first presented by actors performing skits and then discussed in larger group settings. The programs are put in place to help players avoid some common pitfalls off the field.
• Help those that want to help themselves
One potential criticism of the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial program, which is also held at Kellogg, Stanford and Harvard in addition to Wharton, is that it helps the players that most likely already have the wherewithal to live a happy and successful post-football life. Players that actively choose to participate in programs like these, the thought goes, are not really the ones that need to be helped.
It would be easy for skeptics to speculate that these programs are nothing more than transparent attempts by the league to foster goodwill and positive publicity. The problem with that reasoning is that the league does very little to publicize these programs at all. The media, in fact, is granted very little access, if any, into the program. Conversely, I believe a fair criticism is that the league does not do enough internally to promote the program among players.
Every team has a director of player development and some do a better job than others when it comes to making players aware of programs such as these. The greatest advocates for this program, and ones like it, are the players themselves. Their positive experience leads to word of mouth marketing that increases the popularity of these programs on a yearly basis.
The bottom line is that the NFL and NFLPA are smart to create programs like these because it will help to build a network of players that are successful and thriving in their post-football lives. The ultimate goal should be for every player to recognize that their time in the game is limited and make sure that they have a plan in place and have taken active steps toward their future. The fewer ex-players left in the cold by a lack of marketable skills and job prospects, the better.