But in the classroom, they were absorbing a foreign language.
“I need to get back in the school mind-set,” said Isaiah Stanback, a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks who hadn’t sat in a college classroom in five years. “There’s a lot of terminology and subject areas that are totally new to me.”
The 22 students are part of the first class in George Washington’s new two-year program called STAR Executive MBA (STAR stands for Special Talent, Access and Responsibility) designed specifically for professional athletes — some active and others recently retired.
The program has a nontraditional schedule aimed to help students balance their studies with their athletic careers. The current group studied in Washington for 10 days this summer. They’ll meet again in New York in February and later next year in Los Angeles. They’ll hit each of the three cities again in the second year of the program. While there is some work and reading assigned during the long gaps between classroom time, the athletes say they have such busy travel and work schedules, the flexibility offered by the program was a huge draw.
Dominique Dawes was in Los Angeles last week for a television audition. Retired from gymnastics 11 years ago after three Olympic appearances, Dawes essentially has run a full-time business off her brand and her name since then.
“It’s all about motivating and empowering young people, especially women, to believe in themselves, to focus on health, fitness and wellness,” the Silver Spring native said. “That’s what my brand has been about. However, this business school experience will help me start businesses that I’ve wanted to start as a young person but didn’t have the knowledge or the skill set at that time to pursue.”
The program carries a price tag of $95,000, and school officials say students receive the same level of education and attention as MBA students in more traditional programs. Their first set of classes includes business ethics, critical perspectives on business and society and financial accounting.
“We never thought about this as a sports marketing program,” said Doug Guthrie, who took over as the business school’s dean last year. “To us, it’s a social responsibility and leadership program. So there’s a big emphasis on leadership, corporate and social responsibility, ethics and giving these people the business skills they need to make the transition beyond their sport.”
Exploring their options
The weekend before classes began last month, students flew in from around the country. Out-of-town athletes stayed in an area hotel. The few locals, such as Dawes and Rocky McIntosh, the free agent linebacker who played the past five seasons with the Washington Redskins, set their alarms early.
Dawes, in fact, had a glass of white wine the night before she reported to class to calm her nerves. And the following morning, Samari Rolle, who played cornerback for 11 years in the NFL, and his wife, Danisha Hemphill-Rolle, woke up early.
“He was so excited,” she said. “‘Come on, honey. We’re here. Let’s go.’”
The Rolles are both in the program. While offered exclusively to professional athletes, the school encourages spouses to enroll, as well.
“It’s sort of the beginning of a new chapter in their relationship together,” said Michael Lythcott, the program’s managing director. “They had a set life for a number of years — and one person might have been absent for a good chunk of that — so this brings them together and gives them something to work on with each other.”
Rolle retired in spring 2010. He has an idea for an invention — an updated version of the blocking sled used by football coaches across the country — and also would like to prepare himself to serve as an NFL general manager. His wife, Danisha, meantime, already has a publishing company that produces SET Magazine (Sports and Entertainment Today).
All the athletes entered the program with a business plan or vision. While a bachelor’s degree is required, students do not have to take the Graduate Management Admission Test, a prerequisite of most MBA programs.
Stanback, the Seattle receiver, is entering his fifth season in the NFL. The 26-year-old didn’t want to wait until his football career ends before exploring his post-football options.
“I don’t love school, by nature,” he said. “I guess you could say a lot of athletes kind of do it because we have to. Later in life, though, we find out how important it was and how many doors it opens.”
Courting football players
Some come to that realization sooner than others. While the program’s inaugural class features an NFL assistant coach (the Minnesota Vikings’ Jimmie Johnson) and a professional poker player (Michelle Lau), most members of the group are football players, including current Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowler on special teams; former Ravens linebacker Duane Starks, who played 10 years in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with Baltimore in 2001; and Will Witherspoon, a nine-year veteran currently with the Tennessee Titans.
School officials said it made sense to target the NFL because many football players are forced to pursue a second career much sooner than they might prefer. The average NFL career is less than 31
2 years — though the average for players on an opening day roster is actually closer to six years, according to the league. Those numbers are recited ad nauseum to players each year, starting at the rookie symposium that precedes each season.
“They beat into your head that football doesn’t last forever, but it’s hard as a competitor to think about something ending,” said Hannibal Navies, who played nine years in the NFL with four teams before retiring in 2007. “You’re trying to be the best you can be, not really thinking about what happens when it’s finished.”
School officials have big plans for the program. They’ve lined up several current and former athletes to begin classes in February, including Priest Holmes, the three-time all-pro running back. They’re in discussions with the different sports leagues and would like to launch concurrent tracks. A golfer, soccer player or tennis star might have an easier time attending classes in the winter months, rather than the spring or summer, for example.
Eventually, Guthrie thinks the program will bring in actors, musicians and fashion models.
“The key thing about this is the underlying principle,” Guthrie said, “when people have a lot of resources early on in their career, how do they make the transition to sustain business development when those resources might go away and how do they become socially responsible citizens? So that’s a big swath of people that we’d love to see this develop into.”