Teaching the STARs

I recently taught a class on financial literacy in the new STAR EMBA program that the George Washington School of Business (GWSB) just launched. This is a new Executive Master in Business Administration (EMBA) for Special Talent, Access and Responsibility (STAR) students, targeted to athletes, celebrities, and others. For those who do not yet know, I have moved to GWSB, so you can say I went from teaching the little stars (Dartmouth undergraduates) to teaching the bigger stars (athletes and celebrities).

Programs like this one are much needed and fill an important gap. Irrespective of high salaries and lucrative contracts, an athlete’s career is normally very short and often riddled with injuries. Ken Ruettgers, a former NFL player and now the executive director of GamesOver, documented that 78% of NFL players are bankrupt, divorced, or unemployed two years after retiring. This is one of the ugliest statistics I have seen. As Doug Guthrie, the dean of GWSB, stated succinctly: “These individuals need help translating their special talents and access to resources at a very early stage in their lives into the business skills that will help them elevate their personal brands into business dreams that will change the world.” I particularly like the latter part of the statement. These are extraordinarily talented individuals who were recruited for the EMBA program because of their enormous potential to make an impact.

The program is customized to fit these students’ needs, including their playing seasons (several of the football players in class are still active). Thus, it started with two weeks of full immersion in many courses in Washington, DC, and will continue in the heart of the financial capital (New York) and on the West coast, in Los Angeles. Spouses were also accepted and very much welcomed into the program, and out of 23 students, we had four couples in class.

In spite of their special talents, the group, in many ways, behaved very much like regular students. After a few days, they were wearing GW T-shirts or caps, were complaining about homework, and had found the strategic places in the classroom where they thought they could surf the internet, respond to e-mails, or finish their assignments without being noticed (we saw them, of course). There were differences as well. After a few days they stopped eating the catered lunches (too many calories I guess); regular students would never pass up buffet lunches. They went regularly to the gym, many of them looking so super-fit that I could not avoid feeling very wimpy.

But beyond these differences, they were not, by any means, a regular class. Their insights were profound and they startled a few faculty members with their comments. They did not speak a lot in class, but when they did, they were succinct and nailed a point, as if there was no margin for error. Even though they were soft-spoken in class, I could sense their confidence and determination. I admired the female basketball players’ toughness—they had played in several countries, spoke many languages, and one of them, more than 6 feet tall, was wearing very high heels!

We knew we had great potential to work with. We knew we could push these students for more work, give them challenges, and expect the best. These students know endurance, the importance of hard work, the correlation between effort and results. As I looked at this class of football, basketball, and baseball players; Olympic gymnasts; and poker players, I knew I could expect a lot from them. I also knew they expected a lot from me.

My class on financial literacy was divided into three parts. In the first part, I discussed why financial literacy has become important for each of us, what the consequences of financial illiteracy are, and why—in a new world of individual responsibility—financial literacy is an essential tool for making financial decisions. In the second part, I discussed why financial literacy is especially important for athletes: given their short careers, good planning is particularly important, as is an understanding of how to grow and protect wealth to make sure that resources last a lifetime. While most people get rich later in life (apart from those pesky Harvard students who invent Facebook while in college), athletes are rich early in life, so they have to learn in their twenties about trusts, wills, and prenuptial agreements. In the third part of the class, I discussed how these students can make a difference in promoting financial literacy. My discussion here was focused on the divergence of wages between those with and without a college degree and the fact that high school students are asked to make one of the biggest investments of their lives—the investment in education—without having any notion of this basic concept or of the basics of economics and finance. I discussed what athletes can do to make a difference in the lives of the many young people who look up to them.

For those of you who think that we professors just show up in class and teach off-the-cuff, let me tell you that I prepared a lot for this class and was quite nervous at the idea of teaching this group of students. Several weeks ahead, I started reading about the different sports played by the athletes who would be in my class. For example, I read lots about football and football players: rate of injury, lengths of careers, what it means to be drafted. Because I did not know anything about the game, I read “Football for Dummies,” so at least I knew what a linebacker is and could understand the dossiers of the athletes in my class. I read the sport pages of the newspapers and read sports magazines (I understood half of what they were saying, but there were some good stories). At the end of the class, I went to talk to one of the students, who is a football player for the Baltimore Ravens. I had mentioned the Ravens a lot in class and talked about Ray Lewis (of the Ravens) as an example of an athlete who cares a lot about financial literacy, and I wanted to tell him that I think the world of Ray. He jokingly suggested I come teach the Ravens. When I told him I didn’t know whether I could really teach a whole team, his reply hit me like a ball in the head: “Yes, you can. Because you can relate to us.” I always prepare for my classes because I want to know who my students are, what they need, and to make the class relevant to them, but no student ever told me “you can relate to us.” I’ve been teaching for close to 20 years, and it was a linebacker from a football team in Baltimore who best articulated what teaching means for me and what I strive for every day in the classroom. I never felt so good. As I told you, these people are truly special, they are STARS!