Financial literacy and football

I was recently invited to participate in a panel on financial literacy that was organized by the United Athletes Foundation (UAF) and the STAR EMBA program at the GW School of Business. It was held at the New York Stock Exchange, and it was good to go back to NYSE a second time. I had accepted the invitation without giving much thought to who would be in attendance at the event. A few days before the event (which was held April 29, 2011), I was given the list of the panel participants: Robert Marcham (moderator), Annamaria Lusardi, Ray Lewis, Rushia Brown, Chuck Lewis, Bill Imada, Sam and Char McNabb, and Gordon Brown. I had not heard of these financial literacy experts before and wondered whether they were academics as well (please, remember that I was born in Italy, so I do not know very much about American football or basketball). So, it was not until I arrived at NYSE that Friday that I discovered that Ray Lewis was THE Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, Sam and Char McNabb were the parents of THE Donovan McNabb, and Rushia Brown was THE Rushia Brown. There I was sitting on a podium to the right of superstar Ray Lewis, speaking to an audience of athletes and their families as well as the President of the UAL, Reggie Howard. Oh boy, I was in deep trouble!

I was the first on the panel to speak. I talked about the troubling state of financial literacy in the population, of the divide between those who know and those who do not know, of the sharp contrast between the complexity of financial markets and the very low level of financial knowledge that most people have. I spoke of the dire consequences of the lack of financial literacy; it is those who are less financially literate who pay more for financial services, who are more likely to engage in high cost mortgages and to default on them, and who are less likely to take advantage of the financial markets or to accumulate wealth. In the same way in which skills, practice, and experience help athletes to score and avoid faulty steps, financial literacy empowers people to take advantage of the opportunities offered by financial markets and to avoid scams or running into financial trouble. I also spoke of the difficulties that athletes may face in managing their finances and taking care of themselves, their families, and their communities both because of the peculiarity of their short careers, the increased complexity of financial markets that everybody is facing, and, of course, their fame.

Ray Lewis spoke next. He simply blew everyone away. He spoke of what financial literacy means to him, and the problems he has faced. He reflected on the grim statistics we had heard from the moderator that more than 70% of NFL players are bankrupt, unemployed, or divorced a few years after retiring. He talked about how many young athletes are ill informed about investing and managing their money and the problems that result. And he spoke of the need for athletes to be worry-free when on the field practicing or playing—absolutely nothing should distract from the focus on the game. He spoke with a passion and an intensity I have not seen in any person. I have a Ph.D. in economics and am myself passionate about financial literacy, but I could not have articulated the case for financial literacy the way Ray Lewis did.

Sam and Char McNabb spoke of the continuous worries that parents of athletes have about their children. From the anticipation of who will be drafted to the journey through the games, injuries, victories, and losses, they spoke of the desire to protect their son from making bad financial decisions, but the difficulty they face in knowing where to turn for advice. It was when Char McNabb spoke that I realized that about half of the audience were mothers of athletes. She asked them to raise their hands, and so many hands went up! I cannot begin to tell you how appealing it was to see that it is their mothers who the athletes brought to this event; it is them they turn to, whom they trust. I developed an instant affinity for these football players! And when the speaking was finished and I watched the mothers posing for a group photo, I could clearly see where the determination of these athletes comes from!

Sitting among these extraordinary people, I started to dream. What if these athletes became the champions for financial literacy? What if they spoke to students and told them how important it is to become financially literate. Students would listen to them; they look up to athletes. Imagine if we could organize a competition among schools, and the students who got a perfect score on a financial literacy test would get to spend an hour with, say, Ray Lewis or Reggie Howard, to listen to the stories of how they trained to win a game and why they care about financial literacy. Imagine if one of these players decided to become a spokesperson for financial literacy. Imagine…

As I hope I have conveyed, this was not my usual financial literacy conference, and not my typical audience. But it was a special day, and it illustrated how profound and widespread financial illiteracy is and how severe the problems associated with it are. And everybody can be affected by it, even the superstars we watch on TV. At the close of the panel, I got a warm handshake from Ray Lewis; he said he enjoyed my talk. It was . . . priceless!

You can look at some of the photoes of the event on our Facebook. Here is the link: