April 2015 | 

The NFL and Wharton: Helping Athletes On and Off the Field

Close-up of a football player carrying a football

It started with a call from Troy Vincent. The former National Football League (NFL) cornerback, who played for teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles, is now the NFL’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations. At the time, Vincent was Vice President for Player Engagement and was concerned about the wide range of skill sets among Player Engagement Directors across teams. Some had strong business acumen, others (mostly former players) had great empathy with the players, and some had neither.

Vincent wanted to bring a higher level of professionalism to the role through a certification program that would help them develop the leadership skills and business acumen they needed to succeed. He reached out to Wharton professor Kenneth Shropshire, who serves as faculty director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative (WSBI). Shropshire and Wharton Executive Education director Sanya Sharma developed the Athlete Development Professional Certification Program with input from Vincent and WSBI. When it first ran in 2010, all NFL player engagement directors across the league were required to attend. Since then it has opened up to the rest of the industry, and directors from a variety of sports have participated.

“In a sense it’s like a mini MBA,” explains Shropshire. “Our participants are looking for professional growth in terms of critical thinking and decision-making, crisis communication, leadership, motivation and engagement, finance, and negotiation and persuasion.” Player engagement directors are not only providing programming for players on career development and transition and personal growth but they also have an important leadership role on their team or league. As one participant noted, “In our profession we often focus on the needs of others and fail to dedicate time to our own needs professionally. This program gives you the chance to do that.”

Sanya Sharma says one of the important benefits of the program is networking. “Athlete engagement directors are in a unique position, counseling players on some very serious issues. But they are often isolated from their colleagues on other teams and in other leagues. The network that this program provides is a key component. There are powerful discussions in the classroom, and the action learning projects keep teams working together after the four-day session on campus.”

Shropshire says the need for the program is great because of the intense spotlight on teams and players, and the unique roles sport plays in society. “Player engagement directors have to be prepared for the unexpected,” he says. “Plan on having a leadership moment when you are called on to make sound decisions and act decisively. When the unexpected happens, who can you call to help you work through it? How do you create learning opportunities for your players to help them deal with new realities?”

In his new book Sport Matters: Leadership, Power, and the Quest for Respect in Sports (see Reading List, Shropshire discusses recent issues that have affected players and their teams, including the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft, domestic violence charges brought against players, and bullying. Player engagement directors need to educate players on these issues and help them navigate the inevitable media attention.

“You want their first public statements to be thoughtful,” he says. “Give them information and some time to gather their thoughts. The Mets player who said he didn’t like the ‘gay lifestyle’ has since been more considerate. Walk them through their reactions, and explain that microphones will be in front of them. Don’t let their first response be on 60 Minutes.”

“Player engagement directors, especially former players, are natural leaders,” notes Sharma. “This program helps them build the skills to act on those natural abilities and develop their leadership potential in their business careers.”