Interview with Brent Williams
by Pamela Gerloff
When you played pro-football, the salaries weren't as high
as they are now, but were they high in comparison with earlier
salaries are much higher than the salaries of my day, but
to the generations that had played before me, my salary
seemed huge-and it was. I went from a stipend of $272 per
month to play college football, to a salary of $146,000
my first year with the Patriots. I was also given an initial
signing bonus of $25,000, which, in itself, was more money
than I had ever made, and I received an additional $5,000
dollars for each game I was listed on the team roster.
How did you handle
being paid that much money?
thinks that if they could just make more money, it would
be a lot easier, and I was no exception. You're sure you'll
be able to manage it, but that's not true. If the skills
are not there for managing $272 a month, they're not there
for managing $146,000. If you're having trouble managing
$5,000, you'll have just as much trouble managing $5 million.
You will find that you have the same problems and the same
issues, whatever your income, because the problems are not
the money: the problems are inside of you.
A lot of what
you know about the problems athletes face comes from your
own experience. Would you say more about what it was like
for you starting out?
I grew up
in a middle-class family in Flint, Michigan, in a single-parent
home. It was a tough city to grow up in and one of the ways
out of that environment was through sports. The first year
I came to New England I made every financial mistake possible.
I didn't have a budget. Anyone who asked me for money got
it. I bought whatever I wanted, and used every credit card
I had. Fortunately, I was able to play long enough to be
able to recognize and correct the mistakes I had made early
in my career. Not everyone gets that chance. An NFL player
now plays an average of three-and-a-half years, but I played
a total of 11. That allowed me to establish a financial
position for myself that would ensure that my family and
I would be O.K. after my football career was over. Now I
try to help young athletes avoid making the same mistakes
How do you do
predictable mistakes that new players confront and I address
those up front. First, there is the feeling that this isn't
going to end-that they are going to make this amount of
money forever. The hardest thing I have to do is to get
young athletes to realize that it isn't forever and it could
end in a minute. So, after about a year, I sit down with
each of my clients and go over what they have actually spent
during that time. One of my clients had pulled his budget
together on a computer software package and was so proud.
Looking at it, I saw that he was single, with five cars,
two houses, and a video arcade and bowling lane in his house;
he was spending $80,000 month and he was only 21 years old.
I said, "This is not what a budget is-you don't have any
type of planned spending. You're just buying what you see,
what you feel." I got him down to $20,000 month. Most people
could live comfortably on that, but he said, "I can't live
this way. You have me living like a poor man." He had gone
from nothing to thinking that spending $80,000 a month is
It's a constant battle, which money managers
deal with all the time. We advise clients to set aside a
certain amount of money this year and to live on that amount
for x number of years, until 401(k) annuities kick in. As
long as they hit their savings goal, they can spend whatever
they want. They need to look within and analyze themselves
before they go out and spend or buy gifts.
Are young athletes
very receptive to advice from someone like you?
difficult to deal with younger players who didn't talk about
finances while they were growing up; there is a learning
process they have to go through. I can definitely see a
difference in how receptive my clients are to my suggestions.
If they were raised in families who were talking about finances
and preparing for the future when they were growing up,
they're more willing to listen.
What are some
other major issues these athletes face?
with the needs and wants of families and friends is difficult.
When you have those high salaries, you have family members
who want new houses or new cars. You don't want to shut
your family off, and you want to be the same person you
were before your football career. Every player wants to
do well for his mom or dad and help those who have helped
him along the way-but there's a balance. There can be a
lot of emotional tension around some of the decisions people
have to make in this area. For instance, I've seen family
members who feel they no longer need to work because the
athlete has gotten a new contract-but when the athletic
career is over, what will those family members do? Let's
say the athlete buys a house for Mom and is paying the mortgage;
when his career has ended, he doesn't want her to have to
move. I know of a tragic story in which a player (not one
of my clients) was sued by his parents. When he retired
from football he and his wife had to downsize. He asked
his mom if she wouldn't mind downsizing from the house they
had bought her. He said he wanted a payment that was more
workable now that he had retired. She refused and wanted
to sue him for breach of agreement. That kind of story happens
all the time.
How can players
deal with that?
they can't keep their salary quiet. (Unlike a corporate
executive, when a professional athlete signs a contract,
the salary is in the headlines and the family sees it.)
A good way to reduce the pressure from friends and relatives
is for players to tell anyone who wants something from them
to write it down and submit a proposal to their financial
advisor. Right away, that eliminates a lot of the requests
for money or gifts. The problem for highly-paid athletes
is that they can never be the bad guy. They can't say no
to their parents, but their advisor can. I tell my clients,
"I'm not going to your family reunion-it's O.K. for them
to hate me." I also tell them, "Don't help people so much
that you hinder them from helping themselves."
It's not just family and friends, though.
All kinds of people see you as a funding source for their
business ideas. When they see your contract in the paper,
they come running to you to help them with their vision.
The solution, in this case, is the same: Tell everyone with
a business idea to submit a business plan to your financial
advisor. Most people won't have a business plan and others
won't have the courage to pitch it to the advisor. This
process cuts out 80-90 percent of requests. I acknowledge
some legitimate opportunities for my clients to take part
in, but we go in with the realization that this is highrisk
capital. I tell them, "You are giving this away. If it comes
back with a return, that's great-as long as you realize
its risk and reward." For the most part, I would say to
direct all financial requests to your advisor.
What other financial
advice do you give to athletes, based on their special circumstances?
to predict exactly when their careers will end is a major
challenge for athletes, and it affects how they should invest.
Most people can say, "I'll retire at 55" (or 65, or some
other predictable age). An athlete might like to retire
at 35, let's say, but his career may unexpectedly end at
26. Because of this, athletes shouldn't invest their money
the same way a corporation executive with a 20- or 30-year
career window would. The key earning years for pro-football
players often have only a three- to five-year window, so
players need to set aside a lot of money for both long-
and short-term investments.
In my era, we wanted to be able to choose
our type of employment after our football careers. If you
wanted to go into business for yourself, for example, you
would set up funds for that. This generation of players,
however, has the opportunity to not ever have to work again.
I say to players, "If you can maximize what you save and
how you invest, you can set yourself up for the rest of
your life. You need to look beyond your playing days." But
many young athletes are struggling with financial issues,
so that advice often falls on deaf ears.
How much help
is available to athletes to handle the challenges their
high salaries bring?
is the only professional sports league that screens financial
advisors for its athletes. The organization has done a great
job of giving players advisors, but I think there is still
more that could be done. The NFL brings all its new players
to a "rookie symposium"-all rookies are required to attend
before they play a game. The symposium deals with every
issue an athlete may face; financial advisors come in, accountants
talk about tax planning, experts provide training in the
social skills that will be necessary; they talk about women-you
name it. We try to address all the things that might come
up and prepare new players to handle them. A lot of players
do get a lot out of the symposium, but some pressures are
from within the players themselves, and we haven't really
had an opportunity to look at the internal factors that
push players to make some of the decisions they make.
What kinds of
psychological factors are unique to athletes. For example,
when lottery winners, inheritors, or people who have sold
a business come into sudden money, they don't typically
look back over their lives and say, "That coach I had in
high school, I owe him something." However, a lot of athletes
feel that others are responsible for their success. That's
somewhat accurate- we do owe so many different people. I
had an aunt, for instance, who bought cleats for me one
year when my mother couldn't afford it. But when I advise
clients, I say, "Yes, you do want to give back, but get
your foundation in order first, so that if circumstances
change, you're not going to have to tell your mom to move
from the house you bought her." I don't want players to
push their feelings aside, because they're valid, but counseling
is often necessary to help understand them.
Would you talk
about fame and how that affects players?
for players who want to be as they were before to realize
that they're not going to be able to do that. Their life
is forever changed, in big ways and small. For example,
friends you used to share dinner with don't reach in their
pockets anymore for the check. It's nothing against them;
it's just the way it is. Handling the fame and notoriety
is a tough balancing act. What's hard is that you can understand
it when people who don't know you- your fans-treat you like
that, but you don't anticipate it from people who do know
you. When you have your family and friends treating you
like a famous person, it changes your life.
What can people
do to handle it well?
from my own life is that it was difficult for my wife when
we would go out to dinner. People would come up for my autograph
and it was an intrusion. But I realized it was part of the
game, what I had signed on for. I saw that I could look
at it either as a nuisance or as a chance to get to know
someone and brighten someone's day. My wife and I both treated
it that way and it became not a big deal. We balanced it
off with how the restaurant would give us the meal for free.
However, really well-known players like
Michael Jordan have a whole other level of fame to deal
with. They can't go to a mall without being mobbed. It's
difficult for someone like that to have a normal existence.
Mainly, as a famous athlete, you want to have some time
when you can just be normal. Most players do a great job
of handling the fame well. Some don't.
What would you
say is the most important thing an athlete who is just coming
into money should know?
important to surround yourself with good advisors who have
dealt with the issues you're facing. All kinds of things
are going to be coming at you from different directions.
You'll want to have a really good ear available for sounding
You also want someone who can map out for
you what is likely to happen when you get a huge contract.
Very few things will be unique to one athlete. We're at
the point now, for example, where agents are negotiating
the contracts, instead of the players. An advisor can tell
you, "This is what is getting ready to happen: You'll sign,
it will go public, and everyone will know." You should have
an advisor who can prepare you, so you're not caught off
guard with these things.
Williams played professional football for the New England
Patriots from 1986 to 1997. As a young athlete new to his
large salary, he "made every financial mistake possible."
Now a money manager and financial advisor, Mr. Williams uses
his own experience as a professional athlete to inform the
advice he gives to professional athletes, business owners,
and nonprofit organizations.
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