Rookie Camp for the Newly Rich Where do you turn for advice if you are 22 and have just signed a million-dollar contract? The NFL Players Association aims to help its rookies make the right call
By Ellen McGirt

(MONEY Magazine) – Like a lot of guys heading off to the big city for their first job after college, Quincy Monk didn't know (or care) all that much about stock markets, money management or the finer points of hiring a financial adviser. Unlike his contemporaries, however, he needed to know all that stuff--and fast. For Monk had what in our society is a highly marketable ability--he was (to reduce a complicated matter to its bare essence) exceptionally gifted at bringing swift men carrying footballs to an abrupt halt. That skill was about to award him a sum of money that nothing in his life had prepared him for.

Monk was one of the 261 rookies who made the leap into the National Football League in 2002, running straight into a buzz saw of wealth and fame. Monk's three-year contract with the New York Giants promised him a minimum of $930,500 (including, in 2002, a $225,000 salary and a $25,500 signing bonus). That's some serious green for Monk, a bright student who grew up middle class in a small North Carolina town. As for what to do with it, he had no good ideas--and no shortage of people willing to offer him bad ones.

In fact, shortly before Monk joined the league, the number of players losing money to poor investment advice, harebrained schemes or outright scams had become a major concern. In a roughly three-year stretch in the 1990s, for example, 78 players were bilked out of a cumulative $42 million. In one of the most prominent cases, Tampa Bay Buccaneers star defensive end Simeon Rice lost $2.4 million to a charismatic flimflam man named Donald Lukens, who also cleaned out more than 100 other people, including neighbors and fellow parishioners. After cases like Rice's, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) decided the teams could no longer simply shower riches on their young employees and send them out to be fleeced. "Our guys," says Trace Armstrong, the former Pro Bowl defensive end and past president of the union, "have targets on them."

Out of that realization arose one of the most remarkable employee education projects in the country. Although the league already offered a financial seminar to its rookies, Armstrong and his colleagues at the NFLPA wanted to do better. Working with the Securities and Exchange Commission, universities and financial services firms, the league and its union created what amounts to a high-intensity rookie camp in money skills, with tailored information, interactive workshops and its own website. (Full disclosure: Among the organizations that the NFLPA enlisted to help was MONEY magazine.) In 2002, the NFLPA Financial Advisors Program was launched, the first in pro sports to certify financial professionals for players to consult.

While the program is designed for pro athletes, the lessons that are taught apply equally well to the rest of us. As Stacy Robinson, the former Giants wide receiver and now the Players Association's director of player development, points out, "These are life skills we're talking about."

On a summer morning at San Diego's tony La Costa Resort & Spa, Trace Armstrong steps up onto a ballroom stage, flanked by wall-size monitors blaring his career-highlights clips. Before him, a group of 254 exceedingly large young men sprawl across leather chairs. The rookies are there because they have to be--the league fines absentees $10,000--and the amount of fidgeting suggests they're not looking forward to a lecture on why they shouldn't buy themselves a BMW. Armstrong, who sports the water-main-size neck of a man who once led the AFC in sacks, takes the mike. "Sit on the edge of your chairs," he barks, sounding like a coach. "How many of you are getting financial advice from someone right now?" A smattering of hands pop up. "How many know if your adviser has a criminal record?" The fidgeting stops. Armstrong nods. "You need to know."

Armstrong lays out the facts of financial life for a rookie football pro. The good news is, they are well paid for entry-level jobs: The base salary for a rookie last year was $256,000, with an average bonus of $720,000. The downside is an utter lack of job security: Armstrong points out that the typical NFL career lasts only about 3 1/2 years, cut short by injury or the onslaught of stronger, faster, younger players. "NFL," explains Quincy Monk, "stands for 'not for long.'"

As a group, the rookies prove no more financially savvy than any other group of 22-year-olds. The world of investments is totally unfamiliar, and a few of them are even a little murky on the financial details of the agent-player relationship. But their attitudes toward money surprise the organizers: Most view it as a tool for creating financial security, not for personal aggrandizement. They're clearly ready to learn.

Armstrong is followed on stage by MONEY's Sheryl Hilliard Tucker, who helps the players put their new wealth in perspective. A $500,000 bonus may sound like a lot, she points out, but $15,000--or 3%--goes straight to their agents. The IRS has dibs on the next $170,000 or so. Once a rookie is done buying his mom a house, his fiancée a ring and himself a fancy car (all popular goals among this group), a sum that many thought would have set them up for life has all but vanished.

More important than the numbers are the emotional challenges of their new status. Almost all the players are under intense pressure to share their wealth, and some pleas are hard to turn down, like the little sister who needs help with tuition, say, or the best friend who has trouble paying bills. Learning to set boundaries is crucial. The NFLPA suggests that rookies set up an informal trust fund, or "friends and family account." A player can replenish it every year, based on his budget, and decide in advance the kinds of loans or gifts he will consider (yes to tuition, say, but no to cosigning loans). That makes it easier for a player to keep guilt or good intentions from getting the better of his budget.

Throughout the symposium, the NFLPA urges players to save their bonuses and max out on the league's generous 401(k), which kicks in $2 for every dollar the players save. Rookies and their wives can also follow up with a series of finance courses administered by Michael Haynes, the vice president of player and employee development for the NFL and nine-time Pro Bowler.

Armstrong and his colleagues realize that the best thing they can do for a rookie in the long run is to help him find a trustworthy adviser. To get into the killer Rolodex that is the Advisor Program, a financial pro must meet certain requirements, such as a four-year college degree, the necessary state and federal licenses and at least three years' experience. Every applicant must agree to a credit check and complete an exhaustive 17-page disclosure statement about his or her background and practices. "Not a single one of the advisers who defrauded the 78 players would have made it through our background check," says Dana Hammonds, the assistant director of the program.

Do the lessons of rookie camp stay with the players? They've certainly registered with Quincy Monk. Despite having teammates who make a lot more than he does, Monk is determined to stick to his budget. For starters, he bought a townhouse, not a mansion, in his native North Carolina. "You see these guys driving a new car every day," he laughs. "Me? I just got one car. I'm good with that." Working with an NFLPA-approved money manager, he's built a portfolio of stocks and funds poised for growth. And, he adds, "I'm loving the NFL's 401(k). Two-to-one match? That's a great deal."

Monk's career with the Giants--he was sidelined with injuries for most of his first year--shows just how iffy his profession can be. While he exudes optimism, he has also prudently socked away enough cash that he'll be fine if he doesn't work for 12 months. "I'm living my dream," he says, "but thinking ahead."