For Pro Athletes, Business School Is No Game

In some ways, they're perfect MBA candidates: They know all about dedication, they've had plenty of experience in leadership, and when it comes to teamwork, they're literally pros.

Yet few professional athletes, some of whom make millions of dollars before hitting 25, actually get MBAs. In fact, financial education appears to be far from most players' minds. Three years into retirement, many ex-football and basketball pros are not only unschooled in ROI ratios—they're flat broke. And Olympians don't do much better. Anecdotal evidence abounds about athletes turning to high-school coaching or struggling with unemployment.

For most people who get an MBA, knowing the rules of business represents the difference between a fat paycheck and a fatter paycheck. For the handful of athletes who make it to campus, even those with millions to their name, business education could mean the difference between remaining a millionaire and going broke. That's not to say all pros need an MBA to fend off a highly publicized bankruptcy, just that for them the stakes are higher.

With that in mind, the NFL has beefed up its education effort, sending players to business classes through multiday programs at top business schools. Full-time MBA programs are doing their part, too. There is an Olympic water polo player at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile), an NBA retiree at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (Duke Fuqua Full-Time MBA Profile), and even a pro skateboarder at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile).

Admissions officers thrill when they see pro athletes who desire entry, as more and more programs look for nontraditional applicants. After all, what MBA program wouldn't want to enroll a sports superstar? Long hours and intense competition are their bread and butter. Faculty and admissions directors say most former pros are uniquely equipped for the rigors of earning an MBA. Greg Comella, a 7-year NFL veteran and legendary trainer, says his classes at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) were a lot like "implementing a playbook in training camp." After a pause, he adds: "But without the puking, I guess."


Before Lennie Friedman ever considered studying business (his undergraduate degree is in psychology), he earned his first several-hundred-thousand-dollar paycheck. He was 22. Today, the former offensive lineman, a 2011 MBA candidate, has some thoughts about good investments. At the time, he says, "I had absolutely no idea what to do with it."

"Some guys said, "You've got to buy land," or "You've got to find the right fund or investor," all this stuff, and I knew none of it," he recalls. It would have been very easy to lose everything—and he wouldn't have been alone.

Stories about big-league players making big-league mistakes are everywhere in the world of professional sports. Ex-heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson's case is perhaps the most famous: His two tigers helped put him more than $20 million in the hole. Just last week, former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar—known as a smart player on the field—filed for bankruptcy, citing debts that could reach as much as $50 million, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported.

Often, young athletes are often forced to make big decisions about money when they're ill-equipped to do so. "There's no learning curve," Friedman says. The first financial decisions that some players ever make "will affect them the rest of their lives," he says.

What's maybe just as surprising as the severity of players' financial blunders is the frequency with which they happen. Sixty percent of the NBA's often extremely well-paid players are virtually penniless within five years of retiring, according to a recent Sports Illustrated report. The numbers are just as bad, if not worse, for the NFL, the magazine says, with 78% in financial duress two years into retirement. The financial crisis (stocks are a popular play for athletes) and the real estate bust (buying land is another favorite) are taking their toll.

Some, of course, escape unscathed. Friedman, who started with the Denver Broncos, remembers that he was "scared to death to blow it." So he hit the books—a common story for financially successful pros. He went to the library, read The Wall Street Journal, and eventually enrolled in the 2011 class at Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

His goal now? Helping other athletes get the information they need to avoid the poorhouse. He's in talks with three teams about conducting seminars to give athletes the information they need about credit scores and asset allocation, and he plans to start a wealth-management firm to continue the effort. For now, he recommends that players go to the library, find a good financial advisor, and—last but not least—consider business school.


Business and athleticism might not seem like a natural fit, but even the schools best known for enrolling quant jocks have their fair share of real jocks. At Wharton, for example, an NFL linebacker, a quarterback, and an associate coach are all currently taking classes, as is a pro skateboarder.

There are several reasons admissions directors perk up when they hear about athletes wanting to get in. Few people have the kind of dedication that's required to succeed at professional sports. When that drive is added to a decent GMAT score and solid grades, it stands out. Plus, according to a 2006 study by the University of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Full-Time MBA Profile), while students who play sports seriously don't make more money than nonathletes in most professions, they do earn more in business-related fields. When you combine professional-level discipline and teamwork with an MBA education, you have "exceptional employees and business leaders," says Mae Jennifer Shores, the assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at the UCLA Anderson School of Management (UCLA Anderson Full-Time MBA Profile). They bring a sense of maturity, practicality, and dedication that "other people just don't have," Shores says.

However, for most athletes, the MBA isn't a natural choice. Admissions directors say it's rare to see applications from the pro ranks. In 2008, just 5% of players in the Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which is designed to help the transition out of athletics and into the job market, had a graduate degree. In baseball, most players are drafted straight out of high school. The Wall Street Journal found that only 26 Major League players and managers have college degrees, meaning master's degrees are way off the table. And only a handful of NFL players enroll as MBAs each year—typically less than 10 at U.S. schools—despite the popularity of the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program. The program, which has seen 487 players pass through since it was instituted five years ago, is made up of two three-day segments at Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, or Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (Kellogg Full-Time MBA Profile). The programs, which teach a variety of business skills, are designed to equip players with the tools to make smart business decisions, as well as the wherewithal to avoid bad ones.

Chris Henry, director of player development for the NFL, says participation in these courses has led to a "small spike" in players pursuing MBAs. Among program participants now getting their MBAs are former Tennessee Titans defensive end Bryce Fisher, who is attending the University of Chicago Booth School of Business (Chicago Booth Full-Time MBA Profile) and Minnesota Vikings tight end Jeff Dugan, who is enrolled at Kellogg. Just this week, six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle La'Roi Glover announced his retirement, and he is now studying for the GMAT. Schools say most of the NFL players who are now enrolled got the idea through one of these courses. But the league, which has had to turn players away from these rigorous programs, has no plans to expand beyond the roughly 100 people per year it currently accommodates.


"Hey, look how tall he is." "Oh, that's the guy that plays for the Lakers." Mitch Kupchak, now the Lakers' general manager, says he heard that a lot while he was taking MBA classes at UCLA's Anderson school. Kupchak, who graduated with his MBA from the part-time program in 1987, fondly remembers the Thursday night "beer busts" and riding his bike to class. When he didn't, he says, he racked up parking tickets, just like all the other students.

For many athletes, though, the transition from superstar to life after sports can be tough. For one, there's no beaten path to graduate school, as with many other professions, and the sudden loss of celebrity can be jarring for some. "When you leave professional sports, it's a transition period that is so difficult," says Eddie George, a former Tennessee Titans running back. "I don't care if you played 20 years and made $20 million. It's still a transition period that you go through psychologically, physically, emotionally, and financially."

George, who has built something of a cross-industry business empire, has handled it better than most. Before enrolling in the Kellogg EMBA program (Northwestern Kellogg EMBA Profile), the Heisman Trophy winner was able to establish a presence in restaurants, real estate, entertainment, and beyond. But in the beginning, he says, "I took my lumps as far as businesses." Before he took an active interest managing his money and career, he was "pretty much a passive investor," he says.

When he arrived in business school, the information influx was "like drinking out of a fire hydrant," he says. It's already proving useful, George says, and he's revising the business plan of his landscape architecture firm per the advice of his B-school profs.

An MBA, of course, won't make every player a mogul, and it won't prevent every player from making financial mistakes. As the financial crisis has shown, it often doesn't save even the lifelong business executive from blunders and bankruptcy. And it is possible to succeed without an MBA. Says Kupchak: "You don't need an MBA to do what I do." But, then again, a little more education never hurt anyone.

That was the case for Hakan Bas, who was the captain of the Turkish National Swim Team before he gave up his dream of pursuing an Olympic medal to attend Cornell University's undergraduate program and then the Yale School of Management last fall. It was heart-wrenching, he says, to leave the team and see another swimmer take his place. However, at least one of his friends who didn't prioritize education is now considering a career in modeling—hardly a reliable standby for a retired athlete. And though he never made it to the Olympics, Bas says, he did get to swim in the Yale MBA student olympics.

At least in that race he won the gold.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE