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NFL players’ financial woes hold lessons for regular people

When Reggie Wilkes began playing football for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1978, the Georgia Institute of Technology graduate had no idea how to balance a checkbook or calculate his taxes. But he gradually acquired those financial skills and others, and in the off-season, took college and graduate-level courses.`

By the time he left the sport in the late 1980s, he had accumulated a decent nest egg and was ready to embark on a new career as a financial adviser. Today, the 55-year-old vice-president and senior financial adviser with Merrill Lynch in Wayne, Pennsylvania — who has helped more than 40 NFL and NBA athletes manage their wealth and prepare for life after sports — manages nearly $200 million in assets.

Many of his former teammates, he says, were far less prepared than he was for financial life after they left the game.

“A lot of guys who’d retired were still hanging around the locker room trying to sell their cars and jewelry to raise some cash,” says Wilkes, a former linebacker who also played for the Atlanta Falcons. “They didn’t know how to cut the cord from the game, and many of them fell on their face financially.”

With the Super Bowl just around the corner, current players are no doubt focusing on the physical challenges they face now, rather than the financial ones that will hit them in a few years. While it seems only the high-profile bankruptcy cases of sports celebrities, such as those of Michael Vick or Mark Brunell, make the headlines, financial blowouts among professional football players, in particular, are fairly common.

According to one often-quoted statistic from a 2009 article in Sports Illustrated, 78 percent of football players who have been retired for two years have either gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.

Although the story does not name a specific source for the statistic and the NFL does not publish any official numbers, Wilkes says the figure “doesn’t sound out of line.”

Short careers that average just 3.5 years are an obvious reason for financial problems. And despite widely publicized multimillion-dollar contracts, half of all players make less than $770,000 a year, according to the NFL.

But the biggest obstacles to financial stability, according to financial advisers who specialize in helping football players and other athletes, are bad decisions ranging from overspending to sinking money into trendy but unprofitable restaurants.

Gerri Walsh, president of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) Investor Education Foundation, said NFL players often fall prey to pitches from financial salespeople using tactics such as affinity marketing.

“Former players and others who have some association with the team, as well as family members or friends, often use those relationships as a way to establish trust,” says Walsh, whose organization runs financial education seminars for college players being courted by professional teams. “But they may not be the best people to manage money.”

Another problem is that basic financial planning concepts are often foreign to newly minted millionaires barely in their twenties, said Andre Mirkine, a financial adviser at Wells Fargo in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.

“Most of them have agents and other people handling everything, so they don’t know the details about how credit cards work or why they should set up a savings plan,” he said.

Indeed, sometimes they tune out when he introduces discussions about finances. “When their eyes glaze over and they start fiddling with their diamond rings I know I’ve lost them,” he said.

To improve their clients’ chances of making the money earned during short-lived careers last a lifetime, advisers make recommendations that, while relevant to football players and other athletes, can be adjusted to work for just about anyone. These include the following.

CHECK OUT PEOPLE WHO WANT YOUR MONEY

Walsh encourages athletes and others to investigate the credentials and background of brokers and financial salespeople seeking their business through FINRA’s website, saveandinvest.org.

SAVE, AND SAVE SOME MORE

With retirements that last a half-century or more, football players need to save more than most of us. Wilkes suggests that his clients sock away at least half of their paychecks, after taxes are taken out.

INVEST FOR SAVINGS LONGEVITY THROUGH RETIREMENT

Because athletes usually hit their peak earning years in their twenties and their incomes usually drop off substantially after that, “a 22-year-old with five years until retirement should be investing like a 60-year-old,” says Wilson Hoyle, a managing director with CapTrust Financial Advisors in Raleigh, North Carolina.

To lower risk, Hoyle puts most of their assets in bonds, with only a small allocation toward stocks and other growth investments to help keep pace with inflation.

Wilkes recommends no more than a 30 percent allocation toward stocks and other growth-oriented investments for a 30-year-old player who is facing retirement, with the rest going into bonds.

CONSIDER A PRENUPTIAL PACT

Divorce is an effective wealth-destroyer for anyone, and professional athletes are no exception.

“It’s really uncomfortable for me to have to tell a guy that his fiancée should sign a pre-nup, but the statistics show that there’s a good chance the marriage won’t work out,” says Hoyle. “If he’s in his early twenties and this is his first marriage, he probably won’t want to do it. If he’s older and he’s been through a divorce already, he’s not likely to have a problem.”

HAVE A BACKUP PLAN

“The majority of players end up drifting in the wind for many years after retirement before finding their next career,” says Jack Bechta, an NFL agent who has represented players for more than 20 years. “Many never find a second career and even become self-inflicted with alcoholism, poverty and depression.”

Those who have managed to beat the odds include some of Bechta’s former clients such as Tim Dwight, who left the Oakland Raiders four years ago and is now a partner in a solar business, and former New England Patriots player Todd Rucci, who was recently named director of the Pennsylvania State Lottery.

Bechta advises athletes to network and take advantage of educational opportunities while they are still playing, and to broaden their search from glamour industries such as broadcasting to more mundane businesses.

“A former NFL player would be a welcome, and even celebrated figure, in a blue-collar-laden industry, and could easily garner opportunities by leveraging his status as a former pro,” he said.

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