NFL Players Touch Down at HBS

Thirty players from the National Football League sharpened their management skills at Harvard Business School, preparing for when their playing days are over.
by Sean Silverthorne

Dhani Jones, a six-foot-one, 240-pound linebacker for the Super Bowl runner-up Philadelphia Eagles, knows a lot about running around a football field. But he's a rookie when it comes to running his bow tie company.

"I love my bow ties, but the business aspect needs to be refined," said Jones.

That's why he and twenty-nine fellow players from around the National Football League have exchanged play books for business books this spring at Harvard Business School, where they were immersed in a three-day program to learn skills in finance, entrepreneurship, and operations.

Such training is much needed, said the players. At best they have only a few years of earning power in professional football. And they don't work under guaranteed contracts—they are one nasty hit away from forced retirement. "Our window of opportunity is very, very short," said Ted Johnson, linebacker on the New England Patriots.

By virtue of their fame and wealth, professional players are the target of all kinds of business opportunities, most of them bad, Johnson continued. "We are easy prey to a lot of potentially bad investments."

"We wanted the players to have the ability to make a smooth transition to life after sports; historically they've had a hard time," said former player Stacey Robinson, now a player development executive with the National Football League Players Association.

Another key advantage to the program, players said, is the ability to network with each other as well as with HBS faculty and MBA students. "Usually on the field you just want to knock the crap out of each other," said Je'Rod Cherry, defensive back for the New England Patriots. "But here I can talk to them, relate to them, bounce ideas off of them."

Our window of opportunity is very, very short.
— Ted Johnson, New England Patriots

Topics covered in the course included entrepreneurship; tax and other legal responsibilities; assessing financial health; managing yourself; analyzing a business model; personal real estate investment; cash flow versus profitability—sustaining growth; developing and evaluating business plans; and financial analysis, valuation, and return on investment. The initial sessions were held April 5-8, with more instruction scheduled for May. Another group of NFL players attended sessions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

When the group assembled on day one, football was the main subject of discussion, said Jones. But the talk quickly became all business.

"I came in at 10:30 [p.m.] and there were three or four guys talking about a case," recalled Todd Collins, a quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Several players stayed up past 2 a.m. preparing for the next day's case study, he said.

Photo of Pro football players at Press Conference
Pro football players Todd Collins (Kansas City Chiefs), Dhani Jones (Philadelphia Eagles), Ted Johnson (New England Patriots), and Greg Comella (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) discuss their work at Harvard Business School. Photo: Susan Young

Players were in the classroom at 8 a.m. each day, studying and participating in case study discussions with faculty. In the evenings, the students met with other HBS MBAs and faculty before adjourning for study groups.

Johnson said he enjoyed the lively give-and-take, with players encouraged to give their opinions. "In an NFL setting, it doesn't work that way. Coach Belichick doesn't ask for my opinion."

In one class session when New York Giants defensive back Jack Brewer challenged the numbers being used by a faculty member, a discussion described as long and impassioned, Brewer's classmates were stunned. It just goes to show, said Jones, that "an NFL player has the ability to argue with a Harvard professor."

"It's fun to get into the business world and become a new person," said Freddie Mitchell, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles.

One classroom comment by a faculty member caught the ear of Kansas City Chiefs running back Tony Richardson, who is thinking of going into angel investing.

"He talked about being in the game versus being on the sideline. In business, it's okay to be on the sideline," taking your time to assess options before making commitments. After all, the professor told the players, if a deal you are involved in goes badly, it's your name that will be on the front page and your reputation that is put at risk.

Faculty members are used to dealing with smooth, experienced executives in the executive education program, so the cohort of NFL players was something new. "The truth is that it was difficult to know what to expect," said Professor W. Carl Kester, who helped develop the program with Mike Haynes, a former player turned NFL executive. "But we've been extremely pleased with the preparation, the quality of the discussions in the classroom."