Philadelphia – Heads hunched over their desks, 35 NFL players are trying to imagine themselves on a tropical island locale negotiating the sale of thousands of imaginary pheasant eggs.
Former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Lance Johnstone is furiously writing. All-Pro Tennessee Titan center Kevin Mawae is learning that he will represent a pharmaceutical company. Seattle Seahawks wideout Bobby Engram is preparing to pose as a winemaker.
Former Washington Redskins wide receiver Dameane Douglas places a consoling hand on the back of Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover, who is pouring over a packet of papers in front of him.
“Are you alright, man?” Douglas asks.
“Yeah,” Stover answers with a smile. “Just focused.”
The room is silent in a way that football stadiums are not. Players sigh and furrow brows. Retractable pens are clicked nervously. Calculators whir in preparation.
The players are enrolled in a class called “Multi-Party Negotiations” at the Wharton School, as part of the NFL’s Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program. The program was launched last year to educate current and former NFL players about the basics of investing, real estate, negotiation, and entrepreneurship. Attendees are selected on the basis of their business experience and the number of years in the league.
This spring, 120 players are participating in sessions at Wharton, Harvard Business School, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Instead of negotiating incentive clauses, signing bonuses, or endorsement deals, the players at Wharton will soon be split into groups, with three negotiating as buyers and one as a seller. Each side must make a deal in order to keep their imaginary jobs.
The problem they’re dealing with — the answer to which has been revealed to the players by class co-teacher Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative — will test the players’ ability to meld their own need with those of their fellow businessmen in training.
While the program lasts late into the afternoon, after 10 to 12 hour days in class, the players maintain their enthusiasm.
“I’m just completely pleasantly surprised every time we do this,” said Mori Taheripour, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. “This is a pretty amazing group of guys. The enthusiasm, the excitement, and the appreciation — it’s just a great feeling.”
In a sport where the average career lasts just over three years, injuries are rampant, and guaranteed contracts have gone the way of the wishbone offense, planning for the future is paramount.
Before the negotiation class began, over lunch, Tommy Barnhardt, a 42-year-old retired punter for the likes of the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints, discusses his failure to find a corporate job after retirement. For Barnhardt, who spent 14 years in the league, as for nearly all NFL players, the transition away from football was fraught with temptations to invest.
“I probably looked at 40 deals,” Barnhardt said of his first few years out of the league, “and out of those 40 deals, I knew I wasn’t going to do any one of them.” Despite his initial hesitancy, a few years ago, Barnhardt was swept into a deal he calls the worst business decision he ever made.
Barnhardt now runs a 1,800-member punting and placekicking website called Kicking.com with kicker Doug Brien, who last played for the Chicago Bears. The site sells instructional tapes and books, and is expanding into summer clinics for kids.
Lance Johnstone, 32, currently a free agent, has already begun his post-NFL preparation. He owns and operates two businesses, including The Original Printing Services (TOPS), a growing print-screening business that produces t-shirts, hats, and clothing. Johnstone said the older players in attendance, several of whom are free agents, are especially aware of the need to establish a living after football.
“There’s a little bit more on the line,” Johnstone said of the older players. “You see a lot of guys being really attentive to what’s going on.”
Other players, like 10-year veteran fullback Chris Hetherington, who recently resigned with the San Francisco 49ers, said he felt an urgent need to absorb all that he can.
“We make our money in a short period time,” said Hetherington, a Yale graduate. “I’m trying to make my transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.” Hetherington considers himself lucky to have steered clear of some of the classic NFL entrepreneurial pitfalls.
“That’s the one thing they said: ‘Don’t ever invest in nightclubs, bars, or restaurants, because so many of them fail,’” he said.
Each player seems excited to begin the session, but diplomatically declines to offer a guess as which player was the toughest negotiator. Johnstone, for one, said the class would help him better understand his current contract negotiations. But he’s not ready to go it alone just yet.
“I’ll let my agent handle that stuff,” Johnstone jokes. “I haven’t taken that many classes yet.”
Having returned from their imaginary negotiation session, the players are now gathering back in classroom. They can’t stop discussing deals that were made and those that might have been.
“I didn’t want to buy your eggs,” Barnhardt jokes. “I wanted to buy your birds!”
As Taheripour directs the class in a post-negotiation discussion, one thing was obvious — the exercise was difficult.
“At this point, I would be fired,” Mawae admits to the class about his inability to make a deal.
Other players find themselves hamstrung by the very tenacity and assertiveness they need to succeed on the field. Two out of the seven negotiating groups in the classroom fail to agree on any type of sale.
“I was too focused on myself and I didn’t ask the right questions,” Dallas Cowboys linebacker Ryan Fowler concedes. “Plus, I was way too aggressive.”
New York Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer complains that he wasn’t able to effectively team up with his fellow buyers — something he certainly would have been able to do in the huddle.
Shropshire replies: “You didn’t have to disclose the nature of your business. The key is asking the right questions.”
Gary Brackett, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, says considered buying the eggs for more than his available budget, and selling them back to other buyers in order to turn a profit. Other sellers used good cop/bad cop routine to bully their buyers.
“I’m going to take my pride back to the office,” Dave Zastudil laments to his fellow negotiators, then, catching himself, adds, “What office?”
The simple task of brokering a deal for imaginary eggs has outlined some of the key differences between the playing field and the business world. And, if the NFL and Wharton are correct, the exercise in selling eggs should help the players better protect their own nest eggs.
So where does Johnstone, an avowed serial entrepreneur, see himself as a businessman in 10 years? “Having lunch or playing golf with Donald Trump and Bill Gates.”
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