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Northwestern University alum and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Napolean Harris listens intently during one of several sessions at the April 1-4 NFL Player Development Program at the Kellogg School's James L. Allen Center.

A new kind of playbook

Kellogg School’s NFL Player Development Program again brings together star athletes, academics and entrepreneurs for three days of intensive brand building and leadership

By Aubrey Henretty

4/10/2007 - Suppose, said Kellogg Professor Daniel Diermeier from the front of a James L. Allen Center classroom, you’re running a company and disaster strikes. Your product is defective — or worse, someone gets sick or hurt by it. Your brand equity is on the line.

“You have precisely one day to fix this,” Diermeier said.

Diermeier, the Kellogg School’s IBM Distinguished Professor of Regulation and Competitive Practice, delivered a series of valuable lessons in brand defense to a group of students for whom the word “defense” carries a whole other meaning. For the second consecutive year, Kellogg partnered with the NFL and the National Football League Players Association for a three-day executive education program for NFL athletes, held April 2-4 at the Allen Center. More than two dozen professional football players, including quarterback Brian Griese of the Chicago Bears, defensive lineman Luis Castillo of the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Brett Basanez of the Carolina Panthers, and linebacker Napoleon Harris of the Kansas City Chiefs, participated in the NFL Player Development Program: High-Growth Entrepreneurship. (Castillo, Basanez and Harris are all Northwestern University alumni.) The intensive program focused on developing and selling a brand and evaluating franchise opportunities, with nine distinguished Kellogg professors offering participants insight into critical business areas such as entrepreneurial finance, business plan development and business leadership.

Diermeier’s class provided a strategic framework for defending a brand that’s under fire. “There are four main things you need to hit in the first 24 hours” after a nasty PR blitz, he said: transparency, expertise, commitment and empathy with the victim.

If company executives fail to cover that ground properly in the crucial 24 hours following the incident, said Diermeier, they may believe mistakenly the trouble is over: “Two days later, the CEO says, ‘Great! We’re out of the headlines.’ Yeah. That’s great. You’re out of the headlines, but what’s the last image people have in their minds of your company? Rats running around in your restaurant.”

Diermeier also cautioned against defensive defenses such as going on about your company’s great track record for safety after someone’s safety is compromised. “If you talk about your safety statistics, you’re right down here,” he said, indicating an undesirable area of the graph on a presentation slide, near the intersection of low social significance and low audience interest. “You’re a monster. Somebody got hurt and you’re talking about safety statistics?”

In the evenings, students received crash courses from top entrepreneurs over dinner at the Allen Center. Monday night’s speaker was Chicago entrepreneur Peter Bynoe, who has negotiated the construction of new sports stadiums all over the country, including what is now U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox.

Bynoe, who said watching his father “do well but also do good” inspired him to be an entrepreneur, noted that young, untested entrepreneurs face an especially rough road to success. “People don’t come to you with the good deals” when you’re inexperienced, he said. “They come to you with the bad deals.”

Of course, a skilled entrepreneur can turn even a bad deal into an opportunity. The next night’s featured speaker, Wayne Huizenga, got his start in what could have been the worst deal of all: garbage.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the garbage business,” said Huizenga, who would later own transform movie rental giant Blockbuster Video and several professional sports teams including the Miami Dolphins. “Really, it was just three trucks in a parking lot and I was the supervisor.” Nonetheless, Huizenga took the job. By approaching the tiny garbage pick-up operation as a rental business (e.g. placing rented waste bins behind restaurants and emptying them for a fee), Huizenga created Waste Management Inc., the largest company of its kind in the United States.

For all his successes, Huizenga said he’s still in the game: “If you’re a true entrepreneur, you’ll work for somebody for four or five years, and then you’re out growing your business again.”

On the final day of the program, the players pored over a case study with Professor Steven Rogers, the Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and academic director of the NFL Player Development Program.

Between tough questions about the growth potential of the product detailed in the case, Rogers, also director of the Kellogg School’s Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice, offered the players warm advice and cold, hard facts about business, celebrity and the intersection of the two. He acknowledged and confirmed the player’s common gripe that special treatment for most athletes ends the moment they retire, so he encouraged the players to take full advantage of their current celebrity status by parlaying it into longer-term prospects.

“Getting someone to pick up your tab at a restaurant is nothing,” Rogers said. “What you want is for someone to let you work for their company for four weeks.” Just as a coach doesn’t send a rookie into a game without any practice, said Rogers, no one hires a CEO who lacks business experience.

He also told students to keep their minds open. Though the program was winding down, their business education was just beginning: “Class doesn’t end at 12 o’clock. As far as I’m concerned, you’re students for life.”

Noting the program’s rigorous agenda that included up to 14 hours of classwork, group study and informal interaction each day, Rogers said: “If they wanted a vacation, they didn’t need to come here. It is our expectation that these players will want to become more prominent businessmen.”

Brian Griese was among those who sounded eager to do just that.

“I would love to be a social entrepreneur,” said Griese. “Working, using my resources and leveraging [my position] to help others.”