Until just a few
months ago it seemed like the ultimate win-win situation. Over the last several
years a group of seven current and retired NFL players had met with an Atlanta
hedge fund manager named Kirk S. Wright. The players had money to invest and
Wright's International Management Associates had what sounded like interesting
opportunities. According to Ray Crockett, one of the players involved, Wright
showed them financial reports indicating that the little-known IMA had produced
an astounding average annual return of more than 27% over seven years. He also
wooed the players at a lavish wedding at his impressive home in the Atlanta
Starting in 2004,
according to court documents, the players invested a combined total of $15
million in IMA--but the deal soured quickly. Concerned about Wright's secrecy
and strategies, the players asked for their money back, only to be stalled or
given bad checks. In February, Wright, 35, went missing--as did almost all the
money (SEC documents estimate the total at $115 million to $185 million) he had
managed for about 500 investors. Later that month the players and the SEC filed
separate suits against Wright and IMA, accusing them of fraud. Says Ernest
Greer, a lawyer for the athletes, "We're looking for the money."
(Wright's attorney, Jacob Frenkel, did not return SI's phone calls.)
involved are hardly naive jocks in the first blush of financial success.
Crockett and his former Broncos defensive backfield mate, Steve Atwater,
together manage commercial real estate holdings. With Atwater and Rod Smith,
the veteran Broncos wideout, Crockett also owns a thriving real estate
development company in Southern California. And Crockett owns seven hair salons
in Dallas and has stakes in Hooters restaurants there and in Houston and San
The players have
something else in common: They are black. And Crockett now believes that
Wright, who is also black, exploited that to get their trust and ultimately
their money. "Race was a big part of IMA's image," says Crockett.
"Kirk would say his company had to be aboveboard because as a successful
black company, people were watching them." Ivan Thornton, a black New York
investment adviser for pro athletes and entertainers, says, "That [Wright]
was a black man who showed outstanding potential had everything to do with his
illusion of success."
The irate IMA
investors aren't the only athletes to get burned by advisers who stress racial
solidarity in the way Don King did when he cozied up to Mike Tyson. In
November, Calvin Darden Jr., a 31-year-old stockbroker who had bilked former
NBA star Latrell Sprewell out of $300,000, among other crimes, was sentenced to
four to 12 years for grand larceny and scheming to defraud. In 2002 former
agent William (Tank) Black received a five-year sentence for fraud after
swindling NFL players Fred Taylor and Ike Hilliard and others out of more than
$11 million. Sometimes the adviser's incompetence, rather than criminal intent,
is the client's undoing. In 1999, hip-hop magnate Master P's No Limit Sports
Agency negotiated an eight-year deal for Ricky Williams laden with incentives
so difficult to reach that other teams actually called the Saints to
congratulate them on getting the running back so cheaply.
that sometimes when players are getting to know potential advisers, bling
trumps substance. One prospective client decided not to hire Thornton after he
learned the consultant drove a Nissan Sentra. "A man is a reflection of
what he drives," the celebrity said. (Wright reportedly had a Bentley, a
Jaguar, an Aston Martin and a Lamborghini.)
But this brand of
black-on-black crime has victims beyond the ripped-off athletes. The IMA case
and others have made life even more difficult for honest black investment
advisers and agents struggling for a foothold in the billion-dollar business of
servicing pro athletes. "This hurts the black firms trying to do the right
thing, especially when there aren't that many of us to choose from," says
Thornton, who has black and white clients. "These events leave the
impression that a lot of us aren't using good business practices."
Felix Wright (no
relation to Kirk), a former Browns safety who now heads Sports Trust, a
financial-services company for athletes, believes the athletes involved deserve
some of the blame. "Players have to give their finances the same dedication
and attention as they gave their careers on the field," says Wright.
But spotting the
bad apples isn't easy. Crockett says he did research on IMA before investing
more than $1 million, and "everything checked out." Kirk Wright had a
stamp of approval from the NFL Players Association, as a member of its
Financial Advisors Program, which claims to protect players from fraud.
Curiously the program doesn't monitor the financial activities of members or
warn players about the shortcomings of any adviser; it merely requires members
to have a college degree and be properly licensed and insured. "Are they
really protecting our interests?" asks Crockett.
player's choice of adviser will come down to how he feels about the sales pitch
and the person making it. And Felix Wright believes that if that pitch strays
too far from business, the player should beware. "If you have to play the
race card," Wright says, "your presentation is weak."