NFL teams offer players money advice

PERSONAL FINANCE

November 28, 1999|By Eileen Ambrose

AT THE Baltimore Ravens training camp, former Cincinnati Bengal Ickey Woods is held up as an example.

It's not because of the former running back's rushing skills or his famous Ickey Shuffle (two hops to the left, two hops to the right) after a touchdown. It's his finances.

A knee injury ended Woods' career in 1992 at age 26. With six kids and no six-figure salary anymore, he supported his family by peddling frozen meat door-to-door.

The handful of Ravens players attending a National Football League-sponsored financial education class this fall heard this story as a lesson that fortune, like fame, can be fleeting unless players plan ahead.

"That tends to get their attention. A lot of them remember him from when they were a kid," says Seth Hammer, assistant professor of accounting at Towson University, who has taught the class for four years.

Armchair quarterbacks may find it hard to believe that athletes in the NFL, where rookies make a minimum of $175,000, could have money troubles. But some do, so the NFL over the past eight years has made yearly financial education classes part of a series of programs to help players with their lives off the field.

Often players have had little or no money management experience before entering the NFL. They can easily get burned by overspending, by following bad investment advice or by ignoring the possibility that their careers can suddenly be cut short.

"You have players coming in who grew up in kind of poor economic backgrounds and make their way through college and have never had a checking account," says Peter Ricchiuti, assistant dean of Tulane University's business school who teaches the New Orleans Saints.

The classes vary from team to team, depending on players' interest and expertise. Ricchiuti tries to hold the Saints' interest with a stock market game, where the player whose make-believe portfolio performs the best wins a Pez candy dispenser and dinner.

"They're incredibly competitive," Ricchiuti says. "It's not just about football. If they're eating a pizza, one guy will try to eat one more piece than the other."

The classes are voluntary this year for the Ravens; only a half-dozen players attended. The Saints make the classes mandatory for rookies, although running back Ricky Williams hasn't shown up, Ricchiuti says.

In class, players tackle investing and retirement planning. Often what's needed most is a lesson in budgeting, instructors say.

Players are paid their year's salary over 17 weeks so they must learn to stretch their dollars from one playing season to the next, Hammer says. He advises players to put money needed for the current month in a checking account with the rest of the year's living expenses tucked away in a money market account.

But budgeting takes discipline, something many rookies must learn. "When I went straight out of college to the NFL, it was like Christmas every day," says Ravens' defensive end Keith Washington. He earned about $70,000 on the Minnesota Vikings practice squad in 1995. "You never had it and now you have it in a matter of a month and then you can get whatever you want."

Washington wanted jewelry, clothes, a car. Now at 26 and earning $650,000, he says he's become a saver and signed up for Hammer's class to learn about investing.

When it comes to investing, instructors say, they give players the same advice they would to any well-heeled investor in the highest tax bracket: Keep it simple and choose investments that are tax-free or tax efficient.

Jonathan Pond, an adjunct professor at Northeastern University in Boston who teaches the New England Patriots, advises young players to put about 80 to 85 percent of their investment portfolio in stocks and the rest in bonds. He recommends mutual funds because they provide diversity and a professional money manager to pick the stocks.

Hammer likes index funds for small- and mid-cap stocks because the funds have low fees and low turnover, which minimizes the amount of capital gains that will be passed through to investors at year-end. For large company stocks, Hammer prefers Standard & Poor's depository receipts, which track the S&P 500 index, trade like stocks and are more tax efficient than index funds.

The instructors say they warn players to be wary of sales pitches from strangers, friends and even family. Pond advises players that they may want to help parents, but stop there. And he makes them promise not to put more than 20 percent of their assets in a start-up business. "There are so many hangers-on that look at these players like they have a lot of money and will try to get them in some sort of deal," he says.

The NFL hires instructors through universities rather than investment firms to protect players from being solicited. The advisers try to get players to think about life after a football career, which on average lasts 3.5 years.

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