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A rookie’s most important business decision

Holding on to their wealth isn’t easy for many players. Jack Bechta

Print This May 17, 2010, 11:14 AM EST

Seventy-five percent of NFL players are broke within 3-5 years of playing their last games.

The seventy-five-percent statistic isn’t necessarily accurate. The NFL may argue that this number has never been verified and is grossly exaggerated, and there have even been surveys of retired players that put the number at closer to 40 percent.

Here’s the problem: First, when these phone surveys are conducted, they can only reach the most stable players who had the same phone numbers for years. Second, those who are broke are embarrassed by their situations and are usually difficult to locate. They also don’t always come clean or even participate in the surveys.

The NFL players union has been trying to help players by hiring an investment czar in charge of registering and monitoring financial advisers. This office works hard to educate the players and sets high standards for the advisers. The registration process filters out the worst of the worst, but it doesn’t necessarily attract the best of the best. Furthermore, players usually select advisers who aggressively recruit them and represent other high-profile players, so they aren’t actually seeking out the highest qualified adviser but are interviewing only those who pay them the most attention -- the same way they might handle the agent-selection process. Selecting an adviser who aggressively recruits isn’t a bad thing because these individuals have to promote themselves, just as I did when I was in the business.

I’m personally skeptical of firms or individuals who solely solicit athletes. I would like to see that my clients’ investment advisers also work with high net-worth professionals outside of sports. For the most part, I’ve been impressed with some of the investment professionals who have solicited my clients’ business.

For those who are broke after football, there are the unscrupulous John Gillettes and Don Lukens of the world who were the reason for the players’ financial demise. However, the players are their own worst enemies because they simply lack fiscal discipline and don’t do the math. Even those who selected the worst of the worst advisers usually ignored all the obvious signs because their vanity was being massaged all the way to bankruptcy.

Many NFL teams and the league itself commit resources to educating the players. During the annual rookie symposium, the league brings in well-known retired players who share their stories about misguided financial decisions that are meant to get the rookies’ attention. They also offer sage advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes of those before them.

With the collective efforts made by agents, financial advisers, vets, the NFL and the players association, there doesn’t seem much change to the 75-percent trend. To have time, money, status and fame at the exciting age of 23 is a challenge for anyone to manage. I always hear people criticizing young athletes for being stupid with their money, but I guarantee you most of us would have made the same mistakes given the opportunity.

I personally believe that 75 percent of players have spent and lost most of the money they made during their careers within about five years. They simply have a hard time adjusting their lifestyle below their new income level. In addition, since a lot of money came fast and easy from the NFL, there’s a sense that some company may pay them a nice salary to be a hand-shaker. The biggest mistake players make is that they spend to the level of their income with the idea they can stack up their cash in the last two or three years of their careers. However, those years never seem to come, and their careers end prematurely.

Another problem young players face is that the people around them become enablers. They don’t do it on purpose; they simply get a taste of the lifestyle that status and cash can offer and don’t want to stop the ride. So when Johnny Starter buys his mom a new house or car, she doesn’t always say, “No, son, you save your money for now. See how many years your career lasts. We’ll see how much you have put away before buying me anything.”

Spending is a bad habit. In my book, the No. 1 service a financial adviser can offer is fiscal discipline, which takes some guts and an ability to be stern, which is rarely found in the industry. The greatest financial advisers sometimes lack the ability to stand up to their clients’ bad habits. They don’t want to be the ones to stop them from buying a lifestyle above their means in fear of losing them as clients.

The reason Kirk Ferentz, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban get the most out of their players is because they draw lines in their programs that players know not to cross. They command respect, and their players do as they’re told. These coaches represent the personality types to keep players from going broke because they tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. They would make great investment advisers.

Every player needs a financial coach in their ear to educate them and design a strict program that will result in great fiscal habits. It’s the players’ important responsibility to find the professional(s) who will make them better and guide them toward the 25 percent who have held on to and created wealth.

Follow me on Twitter: @jackbechta

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