When the San Francisco 49ers came to town two weeks ago, one of their offensive players had something to tell Brandon Copeland.
“A player comes up to me in the first quarter,” Copeland recently recalled via telephone. “Literally as the play is ending, he says, ‘Hey man, I love what you’re doing. I was sitting in on your calls this offseason.’ ”
At the beginning of April, Copeland, a 29-year-old linebacker in his first season with the Patriots, collaborated with the NFL Players Association to host a five-part webinar series called “Money Talks.” The goal was to create an environment in which participants could feel comfortable having an open discussion about their finances.
“There’s a big racial wealth gap, but just in general, there’s also a big gap between access to information,” Copeland said. “I’ve noticed, as an NFL player, I’ve received a lot of information just because people want my money. Some want it for good, some want it for bad.”
Players across the league signed up to hear Copeland impart his knowledge about money management, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. What should they be keeping their eyes on? What types of things should they do to protect themselves financially? How can they continue to grow their money?
The position is a familiar one for Copeland, or “Professor Cope,” who also teaches a financial literacy seminar at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. The class, dubbed “Life 101,” hits on all the expected topics, such as investing for retirement, building credit, managing student loans, renting vs. buying a house, and buying vs. leasing a car.
But “the secret sauce,” according to Copeland, is vulnerability.
Copeland wants to eliminate the stigma surrounding talking about money. Instead, he wants people to feel encouraged to ask questions so that they can avoid potential pitfalls — and he wants those who have encountered such pitfalls to not be ashamed to share their experiences.
When Copeland connected with the 49ers player again after the game, he reiterated his message: “You should never make a mistake I’ve made financially.”
Growing up in Maryland, Copeland said he didn’t receive formal financial literacy training. He remembers his mother would create personal spreadsheets for budgeting, but that was the extent of his exposure to money management.
“I look back on my schooling and think it’s pretty absurd to go through all those years and not have a foundation for some of the things we know I will face in life,” he said.
Take credit, for example. As a teenager, Copeland knew his credit score would become an important part of his life, but could he define credit? No. Did he know what was affecting his credit score? Not really.
Once he started earning a paycheck in the NFL, and decided to buy his first car along with his first house, he asked himself, “Why am I learning about this for the first time on the fly?”
That question came up again and again. So much of financial literacy, he realized, relied on experiential education. That type of learning can be valuable but also dangerous.
“There is no internship you can have for buying your first house,” Copeland said. "When the lender asks if you want private mortgage insurance, you might have no idea what that is. You Google it, but no one’s told you whether it’s a good thing or bad thing and no one’s told you what it really means. You’re just kind of guessing.
“That’s a 30-year mortgage, that’s a 15-year mortgage, that’s a long, long portion of your life that you’re just taking a wild guess on.”
Copeland wants to do his part so that people are prepared for these types of situations.
Beyond the webinars he’s organized with the NFLPA and his class at Penn, he’s also organized sessions open to the public. In October, he partnered with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for a virtual assembly about money management during the pandemic.
No matter the setting, Copeland’s objective stays the same: Create a safe space where people can ask questions and speak openly.
“Most people learn through growing pains,” he said. “How often are people going to come up to you, saying, ‘Hey Nicole, I racked up seven years of credit-card debt? Don’t do this.’ Not many.”
In an ideal world, Copeland says, everyone would have a trusted mentor willing and able to walk through both everyday occurrences and critical junctures. Because that scenario is not entirely realistic, he’s doing what he can to help.
Copeland recently underwent surgery to repair a season-ending torn pectoral muscle sustained in the loss to the 49ers. When he’s not spending time with his family or rehabbing, he’ll be devising other ways he can have an impact.
“There’s a difference between textbook education and real-life education,” he said.