In an age of longer working lifespans and larger burdens being placed on the employee to be financially ready at retirement, those 30-40 years of compounding interest on retirement accounts have become more and more important. But what about an industry where the average number of years in a career can be counted on one hand? That is Bahati VanPelt’s challenge.

There have been a number of recent conversations on what happens to the men of the National Football League after they retire from the game, many with careers that last only three or four years. The need for help — not only in adjusting to the world outside football, but surviving in it — became the focus for Bahati VanPelt.

He is executive director of the Trust, an organization created by the National Football League Players Association and committed to former players’ overall well-being.

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Established in November 2013, the Trust began with a $22 million budget that increases annually by 5% through the end of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2021.

Funding for the Trust comes from money taken off the salary cap each year that is allocated for former players’ benefits and services. It is overseen by VanPelt and provides resources for former players to take care of brain and body health, career transition, entrepreneurship, education, financial literacy and personal interaction.

“I always say that we’re in the people business, not the football business,” he says.

[Bahati VanPelt]
[Bahati VanPelt]

VanPelt realized that creating a successful financial education program for former players meant creating a program that would address unique characteristics of former NFL players, says Tania Brown, a financial planner at Financial Finesse, a partner of the Trust. “His tireless dedication to helping NFL players successfully transition from professional football into the rest of their lives,” as Brown puts it, is the reason VanPelt is this year’s Benefits Leadership in Retirement Planning Award winner.

See also: Who are EBN's 2016 Benny Award winners?

“Some of the challenges and frustrations that come along with not being able to find that opportunity as quickly as you thought, or understanding market pay scales and having to have a resume that accurately communicates your skill set and value to an organization … those are some of the challenges they face,” he says. “We looked at how others handled their transitions and what resources those populations are using that we can utilize for our guys.”

Getting retirement ready

VanPelt points out that, when transitioning from their careers to civilian life, NFL players share similar traits and characteristics with military personnel — they are similar in age demographics and come from a team- and schedule-oriented lifestyle.

VanPelt’s efforts and creativity, coupled with his passion for helping former players, pushed him to develop groundbreaking retirement-readiness programs — used by the NFL today — that look holistically at all aspects of how a player successfully transitions off the field.

See also: NBA union to fund healthcare for retired players

One such program — transition assessments — prods players to take a quick two- to three-minute questionnaire customized to the player’s career stage in the NFL. This assesses how prepared a player is for life after football. The questionnaire identifies the player’s top three vulnerabilities and develops a customized action plan with resources, including benefits, to help address vulnerabilities.

No two players are the same, he stresses, “and that’s where making the right choices financially is so important.”

The assessments have proven to be pivotal in helping players create a game plan to successfully transition out of football, Brown adds.

Coaching the players

Additionally, the Trust offers players opportunities to participate in live webcasts — interactive online sessions designed not only to teach players about financial concepts, but also how to incorporate those concepts into real-world choices through engaging exercises, hands-on examples and thought-provoking questions.

“We have a lot of guys who have an interest to go back and coach at local high schools or in communities where they grew up because they want to give back to the game that’s given so much to them,” VanPelt says. “That’s an admirable and great thing to do, but understanding the type of lifestyle you want to have and the fact you’re not going to make that type of money as a football coach or teacher, you have to make sure you’re setting yourself up so you can live that dream, but also live the lifestyle you want to live long-term.”

Another popular program VanPelt introduced was the concept of a virtual resource room. “We have the same challenges as other employers,” he notes. “One of the most obvious challenges is that pretty much everything we do is done by phone or email.”

Making technology work

Though there are the occasional conferences where players have the rare chance to meet with a counselor or financial adviser face to face, “there is still the natural challenge of engaging with someone who isn’t sitting in front of you,” he says. “We continue to find ways we can do that from a technology standpoint.”

One way is through virtual online forums that allow players to answer questions in real time and with a great degree of anonymity. The questions can be asked by phone or electronically following an email blast or online webinar.

“I think we share the same challenges as any group looking to engage with employees through relevancy and use of technology,” VanPelt says. “How do you measure whether you’re supplying information that is relevant and that they’re taking it away?”

Are the players watching online education videos just because they are there, he asks, or are they watching it and taking value from it? “We’re always looking to change behavior,” he says. “[That’s] one of the hardest things to do.”

VanPelt says his successes are also a testament to the work of the Trust’s partners, like Cigna and Financial Finesse.

“One of the most important things our partners do is being able to pick up on the cues that allow them to have a conversation about other resources that may benefit the player,” he says.

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