A school for NFL players to get their MBA’s (and avoid going ‘Broke’ when they retire)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Whenever I meet professional athletes, I size them up. This is usually a rookie mistake. (If we learned anything from that “60 Minutes” interview with Aaron Rodgers, it’s that even big guys don’t like to hear anyone say, “I thought you’d be bigger.”)

But here I was sitting next to Bernard Berrian — the man who holds the record (a tie, actually) for catching the longest touchdown pass (99 yards from then-Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte), and — for a second, at least — I couldn’t help imagining that it could have been me making that catch.

Of course, it couldn’t have been me, but I can still fantasize.

And so, accepting the realization that I’m not inclined to hit the weight room and suit up any time soon, I skip the eggs and order oatmeal with skim milk.

He gets the eggs. He earned them. In 2008, Berrian led the NFL in yards per reception (20.1), and in ’09, helped lead the Vikings to the NFC Championship. He has also appeared on NBC’s “Minute to Win It.”

But that’s not why we met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC for breakfast. A more relevant fact is that Berrian has amassed a net worth of more than $25 million – and he aims to keep most of it! – a task harder than it sounds.

Maybe you’ve seen that ESPN “30 for 30” documentary called “Broke.” It’s based, in part, on a Sports Illustrated estimate that 78 percent of NFL players go bankrupt within two years of retiring.

In between omelet gulps, Berrian tells me about the steps he’s going to avoid this fate. On the top of his list is the fact that he has enrolled in an elite program to get his MBA at The George Washington University.

As I order my third coffee of the morning (screw eggs — coffee is for closers!), the man who advises GW’s MBA program joins us.

Sporting a New York Yankees cap and a black Adidas jacket, Michael Lythcott feels more like Russell Simmons than a pointy-headed academic. A University of Pennsylvania grad who holds an MBA with Honors from Columbia Business School, Lythcott is a tech entrepreneur who would fit in as well in the weight room or the recording studio as in the boardroom.

We go back to talking about that ESPN “Broke” documentary, and Berrian and Lythcott take turns filling me in on why players go through money. They are passionate about this topic. (At this point, they’re finishing each other’s sentences.) One obvious reason for the “Broke” phenomenon is that the physical demands mean many players have short careers. “I don’t know if I want to play again,” Berrian (who is now a free agent) confesses when I ask him about the recent controversy over concussions.

Athletes also face a unique tax situation, which is a prime reason they (unlike, say Hollywood actors) tend to lean Republican. Aside from being in the highest tax bracket, football players have pay “jock taxes” in every state they play in – even though they have no freedom to choose which states they will play in.

This makes accounting incomprehensible, and ensures players are confused by their taxes and completely dependent on their accountants. “They’re always the same states,” Lythcott says, referring to the states that enforce the toughest tax rules. “It’s like a stop and frisk law.”

“I don’t think I know one athlete that hasn’t been audited by one state or another,” Lythcott harrumphs.

And, of course, it is true that a lot of players waste a lot money, are scammed by friends and family, go through nasty divorces, or are taken in by corrupt agents or brokers.

“You can’t be afraid to fire people. That’s the biggest thing; don’t get attached,” advises Berrian (who credits his current financial advisor, Peter Roe, for teaching his clients about investing — while he invests their funds.)

Making matters worse, most players don’t have a second act. Not everyone gets to be a broadcaster. That’s why earning an MBA program is so vital.

According to their website, The STAR EMBA “is a fully-accredited specialized Executive MBA program for individuals with strong personal brands such as professional athletes, artists, and musicians.” The program is accelerated, but not truncated, in order to accommodate an NFL schedule. (It basically breaks down to attending six, two-week modules, over the course of eighteen months – plus online classes and homework assignments.)

Sure, you might be thinking, this sounds like a great idea, but will it work? Will enough NFL players enlist?

Lythcott stresses that the program works because it’s “invitation only, referral only, and player-driven.” There’s also the fact that sports agent Joel Segal, a top sports agent (and a GW alum who was recently inducted into GW’s Sports Executives Hall of Fame) helped get the ball rolling by making the introductions and extended the early invitations.

The program started in 2010, and since then, the program just took off. At last year’s Super Bowl in Dallas, they held an event for players and families. “We had a line – a fifteen minute wait to come talk to us,” says Lythcott. “We had over 120 people make inquiries at the Super Bowl.”

With any luck, more pro-players will have the skills to transition into a second act. This is important.

At the end of the day, football is still a job. “I went in thinking, ‘I’m not just doing this for me, I’m trying to set up my family…make sure my family doesn’t have to worry about anything,’” Berrian says.

He was talking about football, but it also applies to the MBA.