Reviewer Karl Helicher Huddles with Robert W. Turner, Author of Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete
Professional football is on the hotseat right now, deservedly so. Concussions, the league’s response to Colin Kaepernick’s knee taking, growing national revulsion at the game’s violence, players with domestic violence backgrounds earning second and third chances, and other mishandled topics continue to checker the NFL’s image, to the dismay of team owners and league officials. Billions in revenue can’t buy happiness, it seems.
But an even greater travesty for the image of the sport may be the briefness of the average NFL career, and how ill-prepared the newly retired twenty-somethings are for life after professional football—without the million dollar contracts, and accompanying fame and prestige. Oh, and let’s never forget that professional football is best at destroying bodies, from addled brains to turf toes.
This week, we hear from an ex-NFLer, albeit, one who successfully moved on to a second career as a sociologist, counselling soon-to-be-retired and just-retired players. Robert W. Turner is also the author of Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete, a project Karl Helicher reviewed in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews. With the help of Oxford University Press, we put the two football buffs together for a frank conversation about America’s favorite game.
Gentlemen, hut-one, hut-two—take it away.
NFL (Not For Long). Interesting title. What is the message here?
The title is a play off of a statement former Houston Oilers coach Jerry Glanville famously made to a referee during an NFL game. My dissertation title is NFL Means Not For Long, but the publisher shorted it for the book. I decided to use the phrase simply because the average NFL career is only 3.3 seasons, which leads to the question, “what happens to the athlete once his career is over after an extended apprenticeship?”
While head coach of the Houston Oilers, Glanville coined the now-famous phrase “NFL means ‘not for long,’” while admonishing a game official for making what Glanville felt were bad calls. The exact quote is “This is N-F-L, which stands for ‘not for long’ when you make them fuckin’ calls.” The “NFL” line was in reference to the fact that the official Glanville was criticizing was in his first year in the league, having previously worked in college football.
You bring unique experiences as a sociologist and as a former pro player. Did being a player help you relate to the many players and coaches you interviewed for your book?
Being a former pro player was a major benefit, but it was also an issue I had to be conscious of so that it didn’t cloud my research. My background as a player was a benefit in that it provided instant credibility within the community. I knew from my playing career that NFL athletes have a mistrust of the media and people they don’t know. People are always asking athletes for things and the athlete is constantly wondering who is trying to take advantage of them. I didn’t have to work as hard to gain that initial level of trust because I was easily able to speak the same language and because professional football is somewhat of a fraternity. Former teammates and coaches were able to vouch for me so it was easy to start the conversation. Even with that, there were plenty of guys who were hesitant to talk with me. Some guys never did agree to share their stories, but for the most part I was able to gain access to just about everyone I sought to speak with.
The challenge was to keep my personal experiences out of the research. Just because I went through the pros doesn’t mean that everyone’s experience was the same. I was also challenged to examine how things had changed since the time I played. As a sociologist, I was trained to ask “how do we know what we know?” Once I started to look at my research from a critical perspective, the project was able to evolve organically. That’s when my research really took on a life of its own.
Race, an ugly part of all society, seems to play a greater role in football than in other sports. Why is this? How would you describe the relationship between owners and players?
I don’t know if race plays a greater role in football than in other sports, but it certainly is a prominent factor in the NFL. I’d also say it is increasingly becoming a bigger factor in the earlier levels of the game. If sports are a microcosm of society, then we definitely see that playing out in football.
One of the striking things that I observed during my fieldwork was how race is at work in many private high schools, football academies, and with personal trainers across the country. Each of these entities would recruit high profile black athletes with enticements such as scholarships, sports gear (Nike Air Jordan, Under Armor, etc.), and air travel so wealthy white kids could play and train alongside them. The white kids and their families could claim that they played ball with XYZ athlete who got recruited to play at the University of Michigan. The white families also hoped to benefit from the increased attention high profile black athletes attracted from the recruiters. The thought was, when the recruiters come to see XYZ athlete, they will also see my kid do something special. The black families benefited from this arrangement because their kids got to attend some of the best schools in the state while building social networks with well-connected families. Of course, there are many variations to this arrangement, but the theme that seemed to remain constant was that the black athlete was used to validate a school’s football program, while white athlete’s families foot the bill for trips to play against top rated schools across the country. Often there is an aspect of charity at work. White families with kids in parochial or other private schools often expressed a sense of pride that they raised money for athletic scholarships to help athletes from underprivileged background get better educations.
In the NFL, race is at work on many levels. From my perspective the main issue for the black athlete is respect. In larger society, professional athletes are admired for their fame and fortune. For the black athlete, pro sports are often viewed as one of the few pathways available to truly “make it in America.” Yet, these men that have made it to the pinnacle of their profession are in a protracted battle for respect with team owners and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. NFL athletes are regularly denied the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process for most of the substantive league issues. Essentially, NFL athletes are told to shut up, play, leave the business of running the league to us, and you’ll be paid handsomely for your athletic ability.
Much of the book centers on what you call the “sports industrial complex.” Please give us a sense of what this is and why some players benefit from it more than others?
From my perspective, the sports industrial complex is somewhat akin to the military industrial complex, but on a cultural level. Today, youth sports are a $15 billion business. For the most part, youth sports were free in this country; then a few entrepreneurs realized there was a lot of money to be made by treating kids like professional athletes. A generation ago, kids all across the country used to sell boosters to help raise money for their Little League baseball team or Pop Warner football team. Now parents shell out $6K to $15K per child to participate on travel teams and hire private coaches. Why? Because they are looking for that competitive advantage. Parents have bought into the idea that this is what it takes to earn a college athletic scholarship. The crazy part is that so few kids will ever earn a full athletic scholarship for college. What I did notice is that many families view sports as a way to enhance their child’s college application. Travel teams give kids the chance to write about their experiences traveling to play against teams from other regions across the country. Sports serves as a resume builder for middle- and upper-class families. At the same time, this new sports economy can place kids from poorer backgrounds at a greater disadvantage. Sure, black athletes are prominently featured in college football and basketball, but the numbers are an embarrassment in country club and Olympic sports. Instead of sports being the great equalizer, in the current economy they reinforce social disparities. I argue that turning youth sports into a major economic engine hurts kids from all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.
What impact is the Colin Kaepernick “take a knee” protest movement having on football? What do you believe will be its long-term legacy?
It’s hard to say what type of impact Kaepernick’s “take a knee” protest is having on football. One thing we do know is that it has been a financial windfall for Nike and the sports industrial complex.
Americans love football, but the game is under attack from several fronts. Kaepernick’s stance just provides additional ammunition for the game’s critics. In some ways, owners are victims of their own doing. After 9/11, the NFL made a conscious choice to drape the game in patriotism. They unfurled flags the size of football fields before games, honored war vets, and buzzed stadiums with fighter jets. Is it any wonder that football became synonymous with Red, White, and Blue?
Then out of nowhere one of the players decides to use this platform to draw attention to a problem that impacts young men like him all across the country. Now, all of the sudden, the NFL has got a huge problem on its hands. The only way they know how to control one of its athletes is to fire him. The league compounded the issue by not getting out in front of the problem; allowing the president to control the narrative. Northeastern and West Coast liberals who could care less about football find themselves supporting NFL athletes’s civil rights. Southerners and Midwesterners weighed in with claims that these spoiled athletes ought to be grateful that they live in a country that allows them to get paid ridiculous amounts of money to play a child’s game. That’s a longwinded way of saying I think Goodell and the owners need to get back to basics and remind people how entertaining the game is. In America, sports have traditionally worked best when they take our minds off politics, not when they remind us of racial, political, and social tensions. Kaepernick’s take a knee protest may cast a huge shadow over the game right now, but it surely won’t be the last time the NFL encounters controversy.
How are head trauma and other health issues affecting the game? Do you believe owner and fan greed will prohibit effective safety measures?
Head trauma and other safety concerns may be bigger issues than the Kaepernick situation. I’m not sure if this is a football problem, an NFL problem, or both. Numbers are down in high school football, but only in certain areas of the country. We know that Friday Night Lights is a real thing and football is king in the South. The college game still attracts fans by the millions, and the NFL generated more revenue last season than ever before. It seems to me that certain demographics are concerned about their kids getting concussed in football, but they sure don’t mind supporting their alma mater’s football team. On another note, from junior football all the way up to the NFL, league officials and coaches have made tremendous strides in making the game safer. Tackling techniques have changed and rules have been introduced that significantly reduce the risk of concussion. There is less hitting in practice, which has reduced the overall number of injuries. But even with all of those changes, football is still a violent game. And it appears to be just how Americans like it.
You spend much time counseling soon-to-be-retired or just-retired players. How do you prepare players for these often-difficult adjustments? Do you have a sense of the percentage of players who enjoy successful retirements?
Counselling current or recently retired NFL athletes is a challenge. For one, current athletes are focused on staying in the game as long as possible. To begin preparing for retirement before one’s career is over is oxymoronic to most athletes. Second, these are very young people who, generally, feel invincible. The money is going to last forever, the party is going to last forever, so I’ll get to retire on my own terms. Those are a lot of issues to untangle while an athlete is still fighting to remain in the league.
On the flip side, recently retired athletes still have money and their health is still intact. Problems don’t really start to surface until about five or ten years removed from the league. If an athlete hasn’t laid the foundation for his second career within five years of exiting the league, things can unravel fairly quickly. However, most former players don’t recognize the need for an intervention until it’s too late. There are different programs designed to help former athletes with the transition, but most haven’t been successful in attracting athletes to take advantage of such services. Part of the work I’m doing now is to try to understand the psycho-social factors that impact former athletes’s healthcare utilization. The working hypothesis is that by understanding the psychological factors that prevent men from seeking the support they need, we can help former athletes address mental and physical health issues before they spiral out of control. I think we need to start working with junior high school and high school athletes about how to manage their financial affairs and health. That way, it becomes second nature to manage these issues by the time they start playing on the collegiate level and in the NFL.