Heather O’Keeffe: Rethinking the student-athlete education

Current adventure: Case

Professional athletes are gods among mortals. They are stronger, faster and more skilled than us normal human beings. Usain Bolt’s speed is astounding, LeBron James’ skill is riveting and Serena Williams’ dominance has captured the attention of the world. Once society places an athlete on a pedestal, we expect them to stay there; rarely do gods fall from Olympus. But what about when they do fall? Why do they fall and how can we ensure they stay securely on the pedestal? While athletes may rake in money while they are playing, once they retire and step off the field, many plummet towards financial insecurity. According to a 2013 study by Sports Illustrated, nearly 80 percent of retired NFL players are bankrupt or are under serious financial strain within only two years of handing in their cleats. Retired NBA players face a similar dire situation, with 60 percent experiencing serious financial strain within five years of retiring.

This is an astounding statistic; how can athletes, the people we revere in careers we wish we were good enough to have, go broke? How can athletes who make millions of dollar a year suddenly find themselves reading Personal Finance for Dummies, struggling to make ends meet? (The average yearly salary of players in the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL respectively are $5.15, $3.2, $2.4 and $1.9 million).

There are several very reasonable and understandable reasons why athletes go broke after retiring. Athletes may be too altruistic and share their wealth too much with family and friends, or third cousins twice removed come out of the woodwork and try to ride the money train. They might not realize that their short professional career, somewhere around five years, will not be able to sustain the rest of their financial life.

For young athletes who find themselves in a sudden influx of cash, making sound financial decisions is no easy task. Imagine a Case Western Reserve University graduate signing a six-figure check, you would expect them to make a few questionable decisions with their newfound wealth. If they seek a financial advisor, they might be cheated and shortchanged. Earlier this year, Tim Duncan said that he lost $20 million dollars from a deceitful financial advisor.

Our professional athletes are not fully prepared for all aspects of their career. Athletes who rise through the NCAA system receive excellent coaching, but is their already questionable education preparing them for financial situations, press conferences and other off-field aspects?

When a young adult has the drive and talent to become a professional athlete, they should receive a thorough education to prepare them for their future. Students who want to be engineers take engineering classes. People who want to be doctors take classes that prepare them for their future medical career. Why should athletes be any different?

The NCAA should create or promote a curriculum tailored to its Division I athletes who aim to go professional, especially athletes that do not expect to play all four years of college. This curriculum would prepare athletes more fully for the actual challenges they will face as athletes and celebrities.

First off a series of financial and wealth management classes need to be offered. These classes can directly tackle the problems stated above, teaching students how to handle their money and how to choose trustful people to handle their money.

Classes in marketing would also be a key addition to this curriculum. Athletes could learn about the realm of sports marketing and lucrative endorsements. Later this could allow them more leverage in marketing deals and manage their image to attract worthwhile endorsements.

Injuries can be a death sentence for a professional athlete’s career. Derrick Rose has been plagued with knee injuries for years; Jabari Parker’s exciting rookie season in the NBA was quickly halted with a season ending ACL injury. The NFL is finally grappling with the dangerous, long-term effect of concussions. An athlete’s finely tuned body is their instrument of excellence. They should know the basics of how their body works and the mechanics of an injury. The more knowledge and autonomy an athlete has over their body, the better.

Finally since the playing career of a professional athlete is so short, classes delving into career development following retirement and interests off the playing field would be invaluable. Does a young athlete see themselves as a sports analyst or holding a front office job or would they rather go back to school?

A curriculum like this would certainly be more valuable to many NCAA student-athletes than taking made up classes or skating through Psychology 101. More needs to be done to prevent professional athletes from going broke once they retire. A radical rethinking of an already broken Division 1 student-athlete system should be part of the solution.

Heather O’Keeffe is a senior studying biomedical engineering and minoring in sports medicine. She hates the word “bae” and loves the word “bougie.”