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Tackling the business world

At Harvard Business School, where 30 NFL players will conclude the inaugural seven-day NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program today, the standard teaching model is the Socratic method. The professor engages students in a free-flowing discussion of the real-life business scenario they have been studying, encouraging them to present their own opinions.

"The most learning comes when you're wrestling with gray areas," said Carl Kester, chairman of the school's MBA program. "One or several paths might be viable. We want participants challenging each other and taking differences of opinion. It's figuring out how you come up with a diagnosis or an action plan, and how you defend that in front of other people who are challenging you with their own action plans, which have their own strengths and weaknesses."

The sessions in Harvard's Hawes Hall hardly resemble the NFL's Wednesday morning game-plan meetings, where coaches like Bill Belichick employ the autocratic method.

As Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson, one of the program's participants, explained: "It would be like him saying, 'Ted, what do you think about stopping Jerome Bettis? Do you have any ideas? I'd love to hear them. Why don't you put them on the board?' That would never happen. He's not going to ask my opinion. That's the style of the NFL. Coaches coach and players follow orders."

The program, initiated this year by the NFL Players Association's Player Development department and customized by Harvard to help players gain business skills for life after football, in some ways represents the opposite of the league culture. Yet it also gives players an opportunity to apply what they've learned in football to the boardroom. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones, one of the students, already has launched Five Star Bow Ties, his own line of neckwear.

"We perform under pressure," said former Patriots defensive back and special-teamer Je'Rod Cherry, who is currently a free agent. "It's no different than a stockbroker who has to make picks on a daily basis or someone who meets a client who's worth a lot of money. How much more pressure can you possibly have than us? You're used to dealing with high stakes. You're relaxed and comfortable in that type of environment."

Why they're here
Stacy Robinson, the NFLPA's 43-year-old director of player development and a former New York Giant, figures that if he were given $5 million today, he'd be set for life, given the business knowledge he has gleaned. Give Robinson that same sum 20 years ago, however, and he admits it wouldn't have lasted very long.

Little has changed since Robinson's playing days. Rookies with fat contracts spend more than they save. Players fresh out of football struggle with their post-NFL careers. It's why Robinson, along with former Patriot star Michael Haynes, the NFL vice president of player and employee development, approached Harvard to customize a program about entrepreneurship.

Over two sessions -- the first was in April -- the players, who paid $10,000 in tuition, reviewed case studies and explored actual business opportunities. Walpole native Todd Collins looked into a real estate venture in Boston. Collins, a quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, declined to disclose details about the site -- as you might expect from a good businessman.

''I don't see how you can turn down this opportunity," said Collins. ''We don't have an exact idea of what we'll do after we leave football. I came to find something and be exposed to different opportunities -- real estate, entrepreneurship, taxes -- just to give me some ideas."

A common misconception of fans and players is that most NFLers can live off their earnings in retirement. In reality, that's far from the case. Wellesley native and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Greg Comella estimates that 10 percent of today's players will not have to work after they retire, while Johnson thinks that is optimistic.

That's because there are many players like Cherry. He was cut by the Patriots last year on Sept. 4. Then re-signed on Oct. 4. Cut again on Dec. 23. Then brought back on six days later.

"That time of still playing? That window is shutting," said Cherry, expressing a feeling that frightens many players. But even reserve players like Cherry have learned things that any businessman would value.

"In some ways, we're 10-20 years ahead of everybody else with the experiences and opportunities we've had," Comella said. "In the corporate setting, you'll see greed and selfishness, but in the team setting you learn about being selfless."

That's one reason NFL players are asked to address corporations about the parallels between football and business. Teamwork. Preparation. Competitiveness. They are second nature to athletes, yet the athlete can't always apply that locker-room savvy to a traditional workplace.

"It's still a difficult transition," Robinson said. "There's nothing that you're going to jump right into where you'll have the same kind of passion. You have to develop that passion while you're playing, and that's why we have guys doing this. We know they have the economic status to start and run their own businesses. This is a great start."

Nuts and bolts
On Monday, the players huddled over two case studies. The first was a hiring scenario in which a Cambridge Internet startup company was looking for a vice president of business development. The players watched tapes of three interviews one candidate went through, evaluating different techniques and discussing methods to screen potential hires.

In the afternoon, the players studied a real estate scenario in which an investor was considering the purchase of a Dallas warehouse. The bank had an asking price of $4 million, and the players had to crunch figures such as the internal rate of return, after-tax cash flow, and the capitalization rate to determine whether the investor should make the deal.

While Harvard MBA students complete approximately 600 such cases, the seven-day NFL program, according to Kester, replicates the classroom setting experienced by traditional two-year graduate students. The case studies gave the players a foundation for future ventures, but they could also safeguard against shady business deals -- propositions, according to Cherry, that players regularly face during their careers.

"If you come away knowing what the right questions are to ask, that's half the battle," Kester said. "If you don't know something, it's better that you ask a question about what the risk factor is, or how you determine the price, or how much money you could lose. Just asking the right questions is important."

Comella joked that Johnson, along with quarterback Tom Brady and other star Patriots, should launch a venture capital firm, which is what San Francisco 49ers Harris Barton, Ronnie Lott, and Joe Montana did in 1999 (the firm, originally started as Champion Ventures, since has been renamed HRJ Capital).

Johnson, however, has no definite plans, although he said he has a better understanding of business and will share his knowledge with friends and teammates.

Cherry, who has a master's in education from the University of California-Berkeley, has an offer from a Boston wealth management firm to join the company upon retirement. Cherry plans to apply the principles he learned in the program in his next career.

Comella aims to pursue an MBA when he retires and dreams of earning a degree from a school like Harvard. He doesn't have any concrete business plans either, but the experience has shed light on his nontraditional earning power.

"Our lives are backwards," Collins said.

"Ordinary people make most of their money and have success later in life. For us, maybe we earn the most money in the beginning of our lives. Maybe your best years are behind you."

By attending the program, Collins hopes to ensure that his best years are yet to come.

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