At the Bengals, most of the time my teammates and I spend at the Paul Brown Stadium is not on the football field. In fact, we spend the majority of our time in classrooms- lecture halls in our offices underneath the stadium replete with chalkboards, overheads, and computer workstations where we break-down film. After our 7-9 season, I was okay with taking my mind off football and out of the classroom. But like a true footballer, as I watched the playoffs and the Super Bowl, I found myself itching to start studying once again.
Last Sunday, a month before we were required to report in Cincinnati, I found myself inside a classroom with 33 other football players from around the league, including my teammate, Tab Perry. Just like in our classroom in Cinci, we had a chalkboard, overhead, and computer station. But we weren't there to study film or football at all; we were at Harvard Business School.
Harvard and the NFL created the NFL Business Management and Entrepreneurial Program to teach players the principals of business management. So for one week I traded in my helmet and shoulder pads for a fresh blazer and a brief case (a Christmas present from my brother who said I should at least look like a professional). In the classroom, we traded coaches for professors who, instead of using phrases like "cover 2" and "man free" referred to "assets and liabilities" and "fixed and variable costs."
Don't get it twisted, just like in football, business is all about winning. But at HBS the lectures were not on zone defenses or blitzing schemes, or the relative merits of throwing versus running on third down. Instead, we debated various business strategies and discussed how to accurately determining the likelihood of success of an investment. We discussed start-up costs, risk analysis, upsides and risks. We were taught what questions to ask when presented a business opportunity. Interestingly, we discussed the importance of asking why we, as athletes, were being approached with each business opportunity, and to assess with particularity what could go right and, conversely, what can go wrong with each new venture.
At Harvard they believe in Case studies. A case study is a description of a real life situation that business executives have faced. We read each case from the managers' perspective, analyzed them, decided what we would do, and prepared and supported our conclusions. In order to obtain the most out of the discussion experience, they broke us up into different groups. Nnamdi Asomugha (corner back about to get paid), Ty Law (Super Bowl rings, local legend, paid), Rocky Mcintosh ('backer, the U, paid), Justin Sandy (safety, been in the league forever, paid), and Langston Walker (one of the biggest humans I've ever been around?trillionaire). Our conversations were facilitated by a woman named Lorin Cassidy who was in her second year at the Business School (presumably about to be paid) and knew how the cases were supposed to be discussed. She is also starting her own business and has teamed up with two of her friends in Business School and are about to launch a clothing line. Automatic respect!
Within these groups we each told our own stories. What our journey to the NFL had been like and what we hoped to gain out of the experience at Harvard. We debated, argued and laughed about the case studies and the points that each of us made in the situation that was presented. By the end of the week our group had bonded and become fairly close. We ended up going out to dinner the last night with Lorin and her two business partners. Langston carried the stereotype of big offensive lineman to a T by ordering two of each appetizer on the menu. Four bottles of wine were ordered (none of which I had ever heard of?am still languishing in the college phase on my drink of choice?which is anything). I ordered a salad, but after Langston's appetizers, I couldn't eat half of it.
The conversation bounced around from different sports stories to kareoking (Nnamdi claims he can sing anything from Mariah Carey to Britney Spears) but entrepreneurship and business was what dominated the night as the topic of choice. It was all fun and games until the bill came?.and all eyes were on me. It was one of those moments when you just wish you could be someone or somewhere else. All I said was "What?!? Noooo?" (It was one of those slow motion things) and the bill was dropped right in front of me.
In the NFL there is some unwritten terrible rule that if you are the youngest player at the dinner table with veterans you have to pay for dinner. Note: this is a rule that I long-ago vowed would end with me and I swore I would never force a rookie to pick up my tab. But because my Harvard Business School classmates bamboozled me at a restaurant called Details in Harvard Square, the vicious cycle must, and will, live on. Given my newly-gained business knowledge, I knew that four digits before the decimal point was a bad thing on a dinner bill. So I tried to negotiate with my fellow business school mates (Paid, Paid, Paid, and About-to-be-Paid) on how it was unfair and unjust for me, a seventh round draft pick who just finished his rookie season. Obviously they missed the class on ethics. They justified their position by noting that I had "newest money." Newest money??? I will have to ask my Harvard Business School professors if there is such a thing.
After forty-five minutes of me lobbying and them saying their money was old and no good, Lorin finally said that she would pay for it with the $150,000 of debt that she already had for business school. Worried my NFL brethren actually might have let her pay for it, I decided to bite it, and pay for it. The tradition will continue?and I will learn to order good wine. Really good wine.
The Harvard experience was what I expected and more. It will not only prove beneficial to me off the field, but on the field as well. I was challenged intellectually. Most people don't understand how important it is for football players to be able to think in today's game. Gone are the days when ballers can get by just on pure athleticism. Coaches are looking for guys who can run fast and think even faster. For a defensive player, the ability to "read and react" is crucial. Being able to think and make decisions in pressure situations is what was the main reason I was able to play this year on defense. To play safety in the National Football League you have been be able to understand the situation: recognize the tendencies, remember the percentages, and decide whether to play out the defense or make an adjustment on the run. Instantly. You have to command respect and attention, and keep in mind that you are part of a carefully-scripted choreography. Similarly, in business, to be successful you have to balance your gut instincts with carefully considered decision making.
We have a month between now and our next session at Harvard. We all have homework: we each have to conceive and develop a new business of our choice. It can be anything from a restaurant to real estate. I decided to work on developing a business plan for a new line of football equipment. As I continue to develop the idea, and the business plan solidifies, I will keep you all updated. In the meantime, please feel free to send your wine recommendations?