The NFL's financial advisory program

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
11:01
AM ET
This story has been corrected. Read below

As players accumulate more wealth, many are going through piles of money fast and furious before hitting rock bottom like some of their predecessors. The NFL Players Association, though, has seemingly attempted to alleviate this unruly spending by becoming the only union in the four major pro sports that has dared to have a certified financial advisory program.

It's a noble effort to certify what is now 370 financial advisers, giving them the privilege of being the only people who have the right to manage the money of players.

Some applaud the union for even trying to fight a battle that is very much a product of a culture that encourages free spending and extravagance.

At the very least, we could argue that the application and a background check required to represent players' fiscal interests could discourage the vultures who prey on athletes.

But others express concern about the conflicting messages that the program sends.

You see, the NFLPA ultimately tells the players they are responsible for their own finances, and their list of advisers doesn't serve as a recommendation. Players may choose financial advisers not registered by the NFLPA, but agents can only recommend advisers who are on the list to players.

In order to be certified, a financial adviser has to have a related degree or degrees in the field and eight years of prior experience (up from three and five years in the past) with managing money. The application asks for information about any judgments, criminal or civil, against the individual. It also requires the applicants to detail the number of clients who have more than $1 million in assets. Pass the checks successfully and you have exclusive access to NFL players.

There's also a non-refundable $2,000 fee for applying, up $1,000 from recent years combined with an additional $500 in dues.

The NFLPA says that the increased costs come as a result of the increased cost of background checks, and does not result in a being a bigger revenue generator.

Aside from wanting to stem the losses absorbed by players, the NFLPA actually accepts no responsibility if an approved adviser comes up with a fanciful idea with huge, unrealistic returns and swindles money from players.

Such was the case with Kirk Wright, an approved financial adviser who took approximately $20 million from players from 2004 to 2005 as part of a bigger $150 million Ponzi scheme.

Those players, including Blaine Bishop and Steve Atwater, sued the union. They claimed the background checks weren't good enough and that the responsibility for the fraud rested with the union and the NFL, which blesses the program through the collective bargaining agreement. But the union stresses that the players select the adviser -- even though it has to be from the list -- and the financial adviser application indemnifies the union from damage associated with any fallout. A district court and a court of appeals upheld the union's position.

"I agree that to the fullest extent permitted by law, the NFLPA and its officers and employees shall not be liable for any loss suffered by me or my clients," the application reads.

"If granted registration, I will save and hold harmless the NFLPA, its officers and employees, from any and all losses, claims, liabilities and expenses."

The union began the financial adviser program in 2002 after agent Tank Black was found to have taken $11 million from players. The idea, at the time, was to separate agents from money management and ultimately reduce fraud. An NFLPA study from 1999 to 2002 said that players lost $42 million from financial malfeasance.

But some agents and financial advisers both in and out of the program (who spoke with ESPN.com but requested anonymity for fear of retribution) wonder if a program that doesn't take responsibility is truly motivated to reduce fraud.

The union's position certainly holds water in the court of law, but is a certification program that doesn't accept blame for its members' egregious mistakes unethical? Is the program in the best interest of the players? Would they benefit from a larger pool of advisers who aren't excluded by fees? Does the program have a lower fraud ratio than the rate of fraud by financial advisers perpetrated on young, high-net-worth individuals in the world at large?

Aside from Wright, there's the case of certified financial adviser Kurt Barton from a company named Triton Financial, who ran a $50 million Ponzi scheme. Despite being an approved financial adviser, he swindled money from Philadelphia Eagles Kevin Kolb, Brent Celek and David Akers. Barton passed background checks, even though it was later found that he attended, but did not graduate, Colorado State University as he said he did.

The most recent lawsuit comes from Vince Young, who alleges that his agent and financial adviser conspired to take out a high-interest loan in his name without his knowledge during the NFL lockout. They deny the charges.

Those who have defended the program say that the union shouldn't be held responsible for anyone the player ultimately chooses to associate with. They also frequently argue the "Madoff Defense" -- that smart people solely charged with monitoring unscrupulous activity, like the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), miss indicators all the time. At least the NFL union is doing something, they say.

"There will always be nefarious people who gravitate to young men who have just become instant millionaires," said Andre Mirkine, an associate vice president and financial planner at Wells Fargo, who founded the Sports Financial Advisors Association, which aims to bring financial advisers together to learn the nuances of the business and hopes to educate athletes about managing money. "The union does more vetting through this process than 99 percent of Americans do before they choose a financial adviser."

An Oct. 2 story on ESPN.com incorrectly reported the conditions under which NFL players can choose a financial adviser not registered by the NFLPA. Players may choose their own advisor, but agents can only recommend advisers who are on a list provided by the NFLPA. In addition, the NFLPA said that the fee charged for applying to be on its list rose from $1,000 to $2,000, but it said the increased costs are due to more expensive background checks and don't generate more revenue.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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