Are Custom MBA Programs for NFL Players Making a Comeback?

From high school football to college football to the NFL. Sounds like a natural progression for an exceptional (or super star) athlete right? From the NFL to business school? Not so much. But this is exactly what some current and former football players say will help them get to the next level—in business that is, because financial security after an alarmingly short football career is never guaranteed. In fact, according to the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA), the average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, with 78 percent of players going broke within three years of retirement. And it gets worse. Nearly 16 percent of players file for bankruptcy within 12 years of leaving the league and filings start very soon after retirement, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 

The NBER says bankruptcy rates are not affected by a player’s total earnings or career length either. Having played for a long time and been well-paid does not provide much protection against the risk of going bankrupt. 

Football players earn millions—more than the average American ever will, so most people are scratching their heads wondering: how can these mega-millionaires, who are pretty much set for life, blow so much cash in such a short amount of time? The short answer is although the average NFL player is a college graduate, the education they receive rarely prepares them for a career outside of football, and certainly not for the perils that often come with going from earning practically no salary at all to millions overnight. 

From bad investments and spending sprees to doling out “loans” and supporting entire families and friends, many newly rich players don’t understand that the millions they earn can quickly evaporate when spending is out of control and everyone has their hands in the cookie jar. It can be even worse when the checks stop rolling in. 

In a 2015 Bloomberg article, wide receiver Torrey Smith of the San Francisco 49ers said “when football is done, some guys are lost. Most people have never seen this type of money. They don’t come from families that have money or understand money.” Players aren’t just grappling with their own urge to spend on shiny things or investments, the article explains. They also face family and friends who see a bunch of zeros, and want in. “You can get into a hole real fast” Smith says. 

In response to what many consider an epidemic among former NFL players, in 2013, the NFLPA established a $22 million trust that provides scholarships or financial reimbursement (up to $60,000) for professional education, among other things. According to Bloomberg, the NFL also provides boot camps, which span three or four days, for careers after football. 

Unfortunately, while the financial help is there, colleges willing to offer these programs have struggled to attract enough interest. For example, in 2011, George Washington University launched an Executive MBA (EMBA) program. Just two years later the program stopped enrolling players. DeVry, which marketed itself as the “Official Education Provider of Pro Football Legends!” launched a similar program in 2014. As of 2015, the school had been unable to enroll more than one former player. 

Two schools are hoping to turn the tide. Kelley School of Business at Indiana University Bloomington (IUB) is one of them. Through a partnership with the NFLPA, the school began working on custom offerings for current and former NFL players back in 2014. The programs, which launched in 2015, offer the opportunity to learn through webinars and non-degree and/or degree programs. According to Kelley, the programs are designed to help launch the next step in players’ careers. Take a look at their offerings. 

Kelley School of Business Graduate Business Degrees 
  • Business Management
  • MBA
  • MS in Marketing
  • MS in Finance
  • MS in Business Analytics 

These programs can be completed in 24 to 36 months, and are customized to meet players’ needs and schedule. Coursework may be completed online and in person. The MS degrees require successful completion of 30 credit hours and the MBA requires successful completion of 45 credit hours. Students have access to executive career coaches and leading professionals in various fields of business. At last count, the MBA program had enrolled at least 12 current and former NFL players. 

Graduate Business Management Certificate 

An online graduate Business Management Certificate from the Kelley School of Business helps students develop the practical skills that today’s marketplace demands. Through certificate coursework, students will learn about managing the core business functions, including economics, operations, information technology and strategic management. All instruction is delivered online and students will take four courses, totaling 12 credits. Students may apply up to 12 certificate credits to a graduate business degree. 


Current and former NFL players can gain practical skills from Kelley’s faculty and alumni by attending a Kelley webinar series. Each series offers insights and practical skills on a range of topics, including personal finance, real estate, entrepreneurship, and wealth management. 

Another school that has high hopes for the future of these special MBA programs for NFL players is University of Miami’s (UM) School of Business Administration. The school offers an EMBA that is not only designed for professional athletes, it’s open to artists, actors, musicians, and their advisors. Marketed as the “Miami Executive MBA for Artists and Athletes,” this specialized program offering “teaches accomplished individuals with strong personal brands how to leverage their current career achievements into business success,” says the school. 

“The 18-month program consists of six 2-week residency modules at the School’s main campus in Miami, as well as online distance learning in three 7-week modules. The program is taught by the same world-class faculty who teach in the School’s other MBA programs and employs the same rigorous MBA curriculum. This includes classroom instruction, visits with business pioneers, case studies and team-building projects.” 

Although UM’s program is open to artists and athletes, an impressive 40 of the 43 first cohort students were former or current NFL players. The program, which launched in 2015, has exceeded expectations—so far. More than 30 members of the inaugural class graduated on July 1, 2016, and according to UM, “some are already applying their new skills in ventures from restaurants to real estate and non-profit organizations. For example, “Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap enrolled to prepare for life after football,” says UM. The athlete “wanted to learn how to run a business, network, and build a team for the business and choose what area to invest in. He now plans to start buying residential properties.” 

Retired Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans said “he sometimes felt uncertain how to handle conflicting advice from different advisers on his varied investments,” says UM. But now, “he feels empowered to have an independent mind to formulate his own strategy.” Says UM, “the 35-year-old plans to expand his real estate holdings beyond Wisconsin and Florida into Ohio. With tools he’s learned to measure risk, Evans also feels better equipped to analyze his stock portfolio and decide whether he wants to bring in another investment or not.” 

For graduates considering the program, Evans had this to say: “Just do it. This is one of those things you can talk yourself out of easily and make a lot of excuses why you can’t do it. But coming here, it’s worth it.” It looks like other NFL players have taken Evans’ advice to heart. 

UM’s School of Business welcomed the second cohort of its EMBA for Artists and Athletes in February of 2016. The “second season” consists of 30 current and former players. Just a few include Minnesota Vikings defensive back Harrison Smith, six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans, Brandon Pettigrew, a tight end for the Detroit Lions, and former Hurricane star center K.C. Jones, who served as president of the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame. 

So are custom MBA programs for NFL players making a comeback? If UM in particular, and maybe even Kelley, have anything to say about it, the answer may very well be yes. 


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