More Than Money
Issue #33

Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“Playing for Life: Athletes and the Big Money Game”

An Interview with Brent Williams

Interviewed by Pamela Gerloff

MTM: When you played pro-football, the salaries weren't as high as they are now, but were they high in comparison with earlier salaries?

Williams: Today's 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.

MTM: How did you handle being paid that much money?

Williams: Everyone 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.

MTM: 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?

Williams: 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 I did.

MTM: How do you do that?

Williams: There are 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 the norm.

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.

MTM: Are young athletes very receptive to advice from someone like you?

Williams: It's more 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.

MTM: What are some other major issues these athletes face?

Williams: Dealing 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.

MTM: How can players deal with that?

Williams: Of course, 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.

MTM: What other financial advice do you give to athletes, based on their special circumstances?

Williams: The inability 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.

MTM: How much help is available to athletes to handle the challenges their high salaries bring?

Williams: The NFL 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.

MTM: What kinds of internal factors?

Williams: Some internal 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.

MTM: Would you talk about fame and how that affects players?

Williams: It's difficult 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.

MTM: What can people do to handle it well?

Williams: An example 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.

MTM: What would you say is the most important thing an athlete who is just coming into money should know?

Williams: It's very 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 things out.

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.


Brent 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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