Nation & World

HBS sponsors program for NFL pros

5 min read

Is there life after pro football? The Harvard Business School (HBS) thinks so.

For the third year, it’s sponsoring an executive education program for young athletes from the National Football League. In separate three-day modules, one in February and another in April, experts help the players conserve and invest the dollars they earn on the gridiron.

“It is tough to get back into the learning mode,” said Matt Light, a six-season tackle with the New England Patriots. “You’re not very well organized when you start out.”

He called the HBS case studies in financial analysis, marketing strategy, tax issues, and other subjects “real-world learning,” with mental challenges that exceed football’s in-season grind of studying playbooks.

The HBS program started in 2005, along with a similar one at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Now there are parallel offerings at both Northwestern and Stanford universities. Over three years, almost 300 NFL players have signed up to go to these programs.

In 2007, 116 NFL players are on the roster for the off-season business schools — 28 of them at Harvard, where a $10,000 fee is covered by the NFL’s tuition reimbursement program.

“Your initial response to attending Harvard or Wharton is: ‘Oh man, I don’t belong here,’” said Light, during a break in a classroom in McCollum Center. “But you get a lot out of this.”

The 28-year-old Pro Bowler, who has a degree in industrial engineering from Purdue, said success in school requires the same qualities as success on the playing field: passion, focus, and accountability. Football is mental, too, said Light.

“You have to be extremely dedicated,” he said of professional-level play, “and you have to be pretty quick on your feet, literally and figuratively.”

Football “is similar to the world of business or finance,” agreed Pete Kendall, a veteran guard with the New York Jets, and a onetime marketing major at Boston College. Both activities, he pointed out, have their own intimidating jargon. But doing business is different from trying to knock the other guy down on the football field, he added. “I don’t feel as bad the next morning.”

Jeff Dugan, a three-year tight end with the Minnesota Vikings, is one of the looming young giants trying out the Harvard program. (At 258 pounds, he’s one of the smaller ones. Light is a wall-like 305 pounds; Kendall is just a few pounds under that. Each is 6-4 or taller, and has a handshake like a bolt cutter.)

Dugan graduated from the University of Maryland with a double major in finance and business management. He said the public often overlooks the mental skills that big-ticket football requires.

“That’s the stereotype — the big, dumb football player. But a lot more than [being physical] goes into it,” said the 25-year-old. Football players, said Dugan, spend 15 hours every week during the season in classroomlike “installation meetings” with pen and notebook in hand, analyzing films and diagnosing plays.

Having NFL players on campus is a learning experience for everyone. “It lets us see past the football stereotypes,” said W. Carl Kester, the Mizuho Financial Group Professor of Finance at HBS, and deputy dean for academic affairs. “You get to know these folks as more well-rounded people.”

Kester, himself a football lineman from the glory days at Amherst College in the early 1970s, started the HBS business track for pro footballers three years ago, with help from the NFL. It’s one of more than 40 HBS executive education programs, designed for leaders in a range of industries, including energy, financial services, and information technology.

During their time at Harvard, NFL players develop business judgment, and learn strategies to distinguish a good business deal from a bad one. “It helps smooth the transition from the locker room to the business world,” said Kester.

For many professional athletes, of course, the transition is eased by a little extra cash. In the 2005 season, Kendall’s salary and bonus package added up to just under $3.5 million. But then comes the problem of how to handle those funds. “The discussion of managing money or making money seems a lot more relevant now,” said Kendall, “as opposed to when I didn’t have too many coins to rub together in college.”

The other players face similar challenges. Light earned just over $7.5 million during the 2005 season. Dugan, who is a relative newcomer to the NFL, made a football journeyman’s wages: $311,160, which still offers significant investment potential.

The money may be big, but the time is short. The average working life of a professional football player is three to four years. That makes Kendall’s longevity — he just finished his 11th season — an exception.

“A lot of people are hopeful, but the reality of the NFL is that it’s not for long,” said Dugan. “So you want to be ready so you can adjust financially.”

NFL football, with an average of 1,700 players a season, is largely made up of young people without “a lot of business savvy,” said Kendall, who aspires to get into the full-time MBA program at Harvard.

“There are lots of good people who are willing to strike a fair deal with you,” he said of life after football. “But there are also more than a few sharks out there willing to take advantage. I don’t know what’s more dangerous — football, or the world outside of it.”

Light recalled locker room conversations that turn from playbooks to balance sheets: “Guys get all these opportunities to invest with a lot of different companies and businesses, but for the most part they don’t have a clue where to start.”

Going back to school for business, even briefly, can help. “The more prepared you are for life after football,” said Kendall, “the easier your transition into that life will be.”