Players associations are bolstering assistance programs to help active and retired players pursue education
After spending most of the 2016 season as an undrafted rookie on the New York Jets practice squad, Doug Middleton enrolled in a pair of classes at his alma mater, Appalachian State University, where he was working toward a master’s in public administration.
One was at the school’s main campus, in the mountain town of Boone, N.C. The other was at a satellite campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. Middleton lived in Charlotte, a two-hour drive from the former and 90 minutes from the latter.
On Mondays, Middleton drove to Winston-Salem for a class. On Tuesdays, he drove to Boone for another. He spent the night on a friend’s couch, took another class on Wednesday, and then drove back to Charlotte, typically arriving home around 11 p.m.
Middleton estimates he logged about 400 miles a week for 12 weeks, a price he was willing to pay to complete work on the degree, covered fully by a $20,000 per-year education benefit provided through the NFL Players Association. Last fall, he began work on his MBA, this time choosing an online option offered through Indiana’s Kelley School of Business, ranked as the No. 1 online MBA program in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Again, the NFLPA education benefit will cover the cost of his degree.
He and a teammate even managed to take one class during the season through the Kelley program, which since beginning a partnership with the NFLPA in 2015 has accepted 102 players and produced 24 graduates, including 16 MBAs. Kelley also offers shorter, non-credit professional courses and webinars, all available to NFL players and former players.
“I’ve done what I’ve done to make sure there’s no gap in that transition into the real world after football is over,” said Middleton, who plans to pursue a career as a city manager and already has been offered a job as an assistant city manager in a Charlotte suburb. “I never want to be caught off guard or be in a situation I’m not prepared for. For me, football has never been something I thought was going to last. This game can be gone for you at any point in time. To be honest, whenever that day comes, I’m fully prepared.”
Plagued by stories of players facing financial calamity after they retired or were released, the NFLPA and National Basketball Players Association each ramped up the infrastructure behind their career development departments in recent years, adding funding for educational programs for both active and retired players to their most recent collective-bargaining agreements. The NBPA offers players $33,000 per year with a lifetime cap of $100,000. The NFLPA does not have a lifetime cap on its benefit.
Because minor league players are not members of the Major League Baseball Players Association — and because players typically are guaranteed money for education as part of contracts they sign after they’re drafted — MLB oversees the program that helps provide education for pro baseball players. It, too, has revamped in recent years.
Though their eventual aim is the same, those three U.S. pro leagues face varied hurdles, produced by the differing makeups of their player bases.
The NFL has the largest rosters, fed almost entirely from U.S. colleges, with an entry system that requires players be out of high school for at least three years before entering the draft. Most players play four seasons, and many spend a fifth year on campus as a redshirt.
The NBPA has about one-fifth as many players, but its members also are far less likely to have completed more than two years of college before entering the league.
And MLB has the most diverse player set, with a draft that feeds players from colleges, junior colleges and high schools, plus an international signing system that admits 16-year-olds. Almost 2,000 players sign their first pro contract with an MLB organization each year, with the vast majority negotiating a guarantee that the club will pick up the tab for their remaining schooling. For a college player drafted as a junior, that may be a year of work left on a bachelor’s degree. It could even include money for grad school. For a high school player offered a full ride at Stanford, the money set aside to cover that cost could exceed $250,000.
Almost all players who enter any of the three leagues are guaranteed funding for a college education, which they can access during their playing days and — in most cases — in the years that follow. Preparation for what’s next can include traditional degree programs, professional certificates, seminars and even mentoring programs such as one offered at Harvard Business School, which each year accepts as many as 50 professional athletes at no cost.
The challenge is turning that opportunity into results. All players aren’t equally motivated to continue their education, aware of the role it likely will play in an often uncertain future or cognizant of the support systems that the players associations and MLB have put in place. And even those motivated to get started face the often daunting task of marrying the rigid schedule of their sport to an academic calendar.
“I try to make it a priority to carve out time to focus on just class,” Middleton said. “It may take just one day a week. Go in and watch an hourlong class and spend three or four hours after that working on that class. You can make it work. That’s why I’m always telling guys in my locker room to take advantage of it.
“It’s a free education.”
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Before joining the NFLPA as a player manager in October, Rahman Anjorin spent two years as athlete development manager with the UFC and two years as player engagement coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs. In those roles, he became intimately aware of the demands of a professional athlete’s schedule. For fighters, time constraints could vary dramatically based on whether they had a bout coming up. For football, basketball and baseball players, the schedule was more predictable. But it also was more demanding, and not at all aligned with the academic calendar.
Similarly to Middleton, who while trying to finish up at App State had to get his professors’ permission to work remotely in order to attend OTAs with the Jets, many players who want to work on their degrees while still active struggle to marry the two.
A snapshot of programs in place for current and former professional players to continue work toward a degree or certificate.
Aligned with the NFLPA since 2015, IU’s Kelley School of Business offers distance learning options that include webinars, professional courses, business certificates and master’s programs, including an online MBA ranked No. 1 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Among the chief benefits of the relationship with Kelley is a dedicated academic adviser to help NFL players navigate scheduling and other issues.
Offers two classes for professional athletes through the executive education department at Columbia’s business school — one in early stage venture capital investing and one in entrepreneurship. Co-founded by former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston and held on the Columbia campus, the classes run for four days each and can be applied toward a professional development certificate.
PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
Launched an NFLPA education partnership in 2016, providing opportunities through its online World Campus for players to complete undergraduate degrees or embark upon a master’s in a broad range of subjects. Because of the range of study options, PSU’s online offering is a convenient option for players who attended schools that don’t offer an online option through which they can complete a degree.
Named the preferred education provider of Major League Baseball in 2017, Northeastern offers an array of degree options for a diverse player base that enters the league from large universities, small colleges, junior colleges and even directly from high school. Most often delivered online, but with on-campus options available in Boston, Charlotte, Toronto and San Francisco, the program also includes academic and career counseling, with a dedicated representative based on campus to work as a liaison for players, most of whom are trying to make their way up through the minors.
“The schedule presents the biggest challenge,” Anjorin said. “If you’re dealing with a major at a university that is one where a class is only offered a certain semester, that can be a challenge. But today’s global education approach is less brick and mortar. Online education has very quickly become the norm, even at some Ivy League institutions. So that has opened up the doors to be able to navigate around that.”
Seeing the success of the affiliation with Kelley’s online program, the NFLPA last year launched a similar relationship with Penn State, which offers a broad range of degrees, allowing for most players to complete undergraduate work in any field of study or work toward a master’s in something other than business administration.
While the NFLPA benefit covers classes at any accredited school that a player chooses, the union’s relationship with two online programs can simplify the process.
Kelley’s affiliation with the NFLPA began in 2015, when it responded to a request for proposal from the union, which sought a business school that would serve as a preferred provider of online education, and specifically an MBA. Kelley saw the partnership as an attractive way to increase its profile. But, unlike some schools, IU was not willing to create classes geared specifically to pro athletes. The only adjustments were the waiver of a requirement that online students spend one week per semester on campus and the assignment of a single contact person to provide players with academic counseling.
“From the Kelley perspective, the NFLPA was just another potential corporate partner,” said Rich Magjuka, chairman of executive education at Kelley. “In the big picture, there is little difference between them and United Technologies or Microsoft.
“The biggest difference is that the students have a far more restrictive plan of study. That’s a big difference. But when we made our proposal to the NFLPA, we were very clear. We were not going to provide a program for the NFLPA that really departed much at all from our regular online MBA program. The players who apply to our program are people that we would admit if they weren’t players.”
Anjorin said having a single contact person has proved to be an important benefit.
“Our guys call a specific number and speak to a specific person, and semester in and semester out that person knows who they’re dealing with and can help them matriculate toward graduation,” Anjorin said. “We don’t want our guys calling a toll-free number and bouncing around from department to department. We don’t want their interest to die, which is more likely to happen each time they’re passed over to someone else. That’s been very, very helpful.”
While active NFL players have to pay tuition up front and then receive reimbursement, a retired player scholarship fund allows retirees to take classes without any out-of-pocket expense.
All three leagues cover tuition expenses even after a player has retired. But those who manage those programs encourage athletes to find a way to get started while still playing, finding time to take at least one class each offseason.
“I always tell them to jump on it while you’re still playing, when it doesn’t cost you anything,” Anjorin said, “because once you stop playing, every second of every minute that you’re no longer getting that check is a financial burden that you’re going to have to take on.”
With far fewer players in its system, the NBPA has not yet opted for an affiliation with any single school. Its continuing education program launched less than three years ago, born of the most recent CBA. Like the NFL, it pays for traditional degree programs, executive education and even one-off classes or seminars on investing or targeted topics such as licensing.
To help players navigate the new benefit, the NBPA hired an academic adviser with five years experience in that role in college athletics.
“I’ve had conversations with players saying, ‘I want to go back and finish, but I don’t know where to start,’” said Hannah Alattar, who came to the NBPA after stints at FSU and Portland State. “They maybe didn’t have the best relationship with their institution, or they had a great relationship with their institution and they don’t know where to start. And that’s where I come in. I can guide them through the process and get them working toward whatever it is that they want.”
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With five years in the league under his belt, coming off a season in which he landed on injured reserve with a concussion and fractured vertebrae, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Brock Coyle reconsidered the way he would spend his offseason.
Coyle earned his bachelor’s degree in marketing while still playing at the University of Montana, where he redshirted one season. As the 49ers’ players union representative, he’s well aware that the NFLPA would fund his pursuit of a master’s degree. But he’s not sure he’ll need one for his next career, or even when he’ll be ready to begin that next life stage.
Still, Coyle was intrigued when he heard about a set of executive education courses launched last year by the Columbia Business School, designed for pro athletes and co-founded by former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston. One course, offered in April, focuses on early stage venture capital investing. The other, set for June, is on entrepreneurship. Held on campus at Columbia, each session runs for four days. At $8,750 per session, the classes fit within the $20,000 annual benefit offered through the NFLPA.
“Once you’ve been in the league for a while, you realize you have the time to do something like this,” said Coyle, who plans to travel from his Bozeman, Mont., home to attend both. “We work out and focus on football. But going into my sixth year, I knew I could prioritize my time in the offseason. So I wanted to get better mentally and help myself be prepared for my next step.
“What was intriguing for me was how specific this is. It’s very focused on things that we as NFL players experience all the time.”
The Columbia program was co-founded and is led by Erica Duignan Minnihan, managing partner of venture investment company 1000 Angels. Duignan Minnihan began managing early stage investments for Colston and several other NFL players about five years ago. Struck by the inordinate number of early stage offers that came the players’ way, Duignan Minnihan saw an educational opportunity.
“If you take someone in the general population with equivalent net worth, these players are getting solicited by startup founders 100 times more,” Duignan Minnihan said. “So the issue is not so much that I think athletes should or should not invest [in startups]. It’s that they’re going to get approached, so this is a really important tool for them to have in their arsenal as a prophylactic.
“Almost any VC investor will tell you that you only invest in about one company for every 200 companies you see. The problem is that athletes are not familiar with this statistic. So if they get approached by three companies, they might invest in all of them. There’s a whole process you have to go through to make a good decision.”
The entrepreneur-focused course stems from players’ interest in starting their own businesses. Too often, Duignan Minnihan said, players sink their own savings into those ventures, unaware that the startups that succeed typically do so by marrying smaller portions of their own money to capital they raise from others.
Last year, the Columbia classes each attracted 10 players, all from the NFL. This year, she hopes to double that number and expand to other sports, which might include creating courses that are a better fit for the NBA or MLB schedule.
“Our players are constantly approached [about investments],” said Deborah Rothstein Murman, director of career development for the NBPA. “So a part of any type career program we do is to help players understand what questions to ask and who they should have on their team when they‘re evaluating deals. We don’t tell them what a good deal is. But we help them understand what the right questions are so they can recognize a good deal from a bad deal.”
While the tuition benefit may seem to be an inconsequential piece for players who often earn seven figures and up during their playing careers, Rothstein Murman said that its value goes beyond that, delivering the message that the union and league want them to make education a priority.
“We as a union want to continue to emphasize to our players that this is out there,” Coyle said. “This is available to you. Everything is at your fingertips. All it takes is you signing up and making that effort. And it can really help you.”
Those working with players in all three sports point to a recent shift in their approach toward their futures.
Anjorin described an evolution from an unwillingness by most NFL players to think even a day beyond their playing career, to a late-career recognition that they needed to prepare for what comes next, to an eagerness to think about life after the NFL even before they’ve set foot on the field. Rothstein Murman pointed to NBA rookies embracing the concept of planning their career during pre-draft meetings.
“It was not like this until very recently, but our guys today are looking at their time in the league as a platform, and they see it that way from the start,” Anjorin said. “It’s no longer that ‘I’m going to play 10 or 15 years.’ It’s, ‘however long I play, I’m going to use this platform to set up what comes next.’ So they walk into the room with their head on a swivel, already looking for ways to cultivate their true passion outside of football.
“What they achieve in football is not all they want to do. And they’re not waiting until their eighth or ninth year in the league to do something about it.”