We've heard a lot about the dangers football players face on the field—the damage to body and brain that comes from driving your skull into an armored opponent hundreds of times a season. But there's another malady afflicting the NFL, playing out beyond the gaze of the cameras and the crowds. A 2010 report produced by a Dallas investment house found that aside from the richest of the rich, among the remaining 90 percent of NFL players, nine in ten of them would be insolvent within ten years of retirement. If that figure seems inconceivably high, consider that even at half that rate, the league is facing an epidemic. Pro football careers last on average just 3.5 years, most ending all of a sudden with an on-field injury, the athletes earning millions one moment and nothing the next. Before and after retirement, all too many of them are throwing their money at risky ventures, burning through their earnings, turning themselves into bright, barn-sized marks for any underhanded scammer or well-meaning bumbler.

Harry Swayne, a starting tackle on three different Super Bowl teams, now works as the Baltimore Ravens player-engagement rep, whose job it is to counsel and assist the athletes. He says retired guys call him all the time who are downtown drunk, crying, who have lost their savings and wives and can't afford child-support payments. "After the last play, a player's self-confidence is broken," Swayne tells me, his mellifluous baritone appropriately calming. "I literally have to give them money. I talk to them about their redeeming qualities and value as men."

It's not just the second-stringers and the guys with blown-out knees who are imperiled financially. Even the superstars are at risk. One of the recent titans to fall: Warren Sapp, the taunting, always yabbering pass rusher whose six-year, $36 million contract was one of the richest deals ever for a defenseman upon signing in 1998. Over thirteen seasons, Sapp was paid more than $60 million in salary and held endorsement deals with Nike, National Car Rental, and Swanson Hungry-Man. Yet when he filed for bankruptcy last year, his debts had reached $6.7 million, his checking and saving accounts holding a combined $1,165.35. Most reports sneered at his collapse, depicting a crass and irrepressible man-child incapable of hacking it in the adult world: He owed child support to five different women, had lost his 2002 Super Bowl ring, and owned 240 pairs of Air Jordans and a lion-skin rug. But the primary source of his debt, according to the filing: bad business deals, particularly an ill-advised venture, Urban Solutions Group, that built low-income housing in Florida during the housing bust.

Derrick Brooks, a former Buccaneer alongside Sapp, is now one of the "ambassadors" the NFL sends out to warn players about pecuniary pitfalls. He recounts taking a wash on a T-shirt company back during his playing days. He wrote a $35,000 check to a friend of a college buddy, but Brooks didn't do the necessary due diligence, didn't look over a business plan. He didn't even ask for a copy of the check. The man vanished with the money. "Lord, I banked it as a lesson," Brooks says. "The guy penetrated a very close network. The embezzler duped my friend as well. The swindle often comes as a slow leak, not a blown tire."

The NFL has responded to this increasingly publicized crisis with everything from mandatory symposiums for rookies to career-transition training for veterans. The league provides education on investment fraud and arranges off-season internships and "boot camps" related to future careers in broadcasting and the music and movie industries. It sends one hundred players each off-season to its own four-day business and entrepreneurial seminars at Notre Dame, Penn, and Stanford. But this instruction is meant not to spur entrepreneurship but, as a league official told me, to "reverse the curse" by forestalling it. Athletes are supposed to learn just enough there to realize that they're still Pop Warner when it comes to business. The very traits that enabled them to become professional football players—a cocksure belief in their own superiority, a fearlessness with risk—often creates foolhardy and dangerous investors.

While the NFL preaches patience and temperance, a new executive MBA program at George Washington University—the first MBA program designed especially with professional football players in mind—takes the opposite approach. Called STAR, an acronym for Special Talent, Access, and Responsibility, the program treats entrepreneurial inclinations not as a frailty to be reined in but as a weapon to be honed and deployed. The emphasis is definitely offense, not defense. Michael Lythcott, a successful entrepreneur who runs STAR's new business incubator, says the league and the play-it-safe financial advisers have neither cut down on the risky behavior nor addressed the real problem. He likens their approach to teaching abstinence in high school sex ed. Lythcott, whose mother founded Harlem's National Black Theatre, sees the plight of athlete investors as that of African-American entrepreneurs writ large—mostly that they operate outside the existing support networks and that they don't benefit from suitable financing, appropriately matched partners, and training that are all there for others. So this MBA program emboldens the forty-five students already enrolled in the first two classes to take their collective net worth of $300 million, their $2 to $3 billion networks of corporate sponsors and wealthy boosters, and to suit up for business now, before their stars begin to wane. It's a strategy no one has tried before, Doug Guthrie, the dean of George Washington's business school, tells me.

The people running the STAR MBA are good salesmen with a good sales pitch, but so far the NFL isn't buying it. A Wharton professor who teaches one of the league's sanctioned business seminars dismissed the GWU degree as "MBA light." Ed Butowsky, a managing partner at the Dallas firm that conducted the athlete-bankruptcy report, manages the money of a hundred professional athletes, insisting that these twenty- and thirtysomethings uncharacteristically forgo the flash and behave financially as if they are 60-year-old pre-retirees about to be on a fixed income for the rest of their long lives. Of STAR's pro-business strategy, Butowsky says, "It's like allowing drug dealers to treat recovering addicts. You're giving these guys the drugs."


Last spring, I decided to see for myself what the STAR program was like. During the four days I spent at George Washington University sitting in on business classes, I witnessed speedy receivers and cornerbacks attack accounting books with yellow highlighters and 320-pound lineman take on the Kantian approach to business ethics. In a role-play exercise, Marcus Stroud, the two-time All-Pro defensive tackle, made believe he was the CEO of a glue company whose products had become popular with fume-huffing street urchins in Latin America. When E. J. Henderson, a Minnesota Vikings linebacker pretending to be an anticorporate activist, demanded that the company shutter its factory in Honduras, Stroud said, "Uh-uh, we ain't gonna jump the gun on that one, you feel me? Do the math right here: You close the plant, you've got 500 more kids on the street." Some of the players were joined in class by their wives—at the additional tuition cost of $99,500 per student—since a professional athlete's income and renown often constitute the family business. One morning, I watched Emma Dockery, the petite wife of Derrick Dockery, a towering offensive lineman several times her size, announce during the pre-class meal that YouTube helped her figure out a vexing aspect of balance sheets. In celebration, she executed a perfect cheerleader's double-hook jump.