In their new book, Is There Life After Football? Surviving the NFL, James Holstein, Richard Jones, and nine-year NFL veteran George Koonce, Jr., present the results of an extensive sociological study of former pro football players. A major part of the book, of course, looks at the physical toll that an NFL career inflicts on its players. But even more striking are their findings on how life in football affects former players’ ability to find and hold a job, to maintain relationships, even to engage in basic social interactions. In this interview excerpt, Holstein and Jones discuss what they discovered in their research.
Your first chapter makes an important observation that is key in the rest of the book – that talented young football players are treated as special for most of their lives, but that there is a dark side to that special status.
Jim Holstein: The dark side to being special in that respect are the expectations that come along with always being treated as different than the kid’s age peers. We talk about football players entering the bubble somewhere along the way. We talk mainly about the bubble as life in the NFL, but players are in a bubble from the time they’re in high school. George can tell stories about special treatment––and George was not identified as an elite athlete early on; he was not a highly recruited high school star. But he was the best player on his high school team. And he can talk about being treated specially, getting special perks, getting attention from classmates, from young women, having people look over his academic shortcomings. In a way, the players don’t have to carry their own weight in many of the dimensions of life that most of us do.
When they get into college, it’s sort of the same thing. When you’re on scholarship, people care about you maintaining your eligibility, perhaps more than they care about you getting an education. And when that’s the primary goal, maybe these magnificent academic support services that are available at almost all Division I universities, maybe the concern is more about getting student-athletes into courses where they will maintain their eligibility, rather than getting them into programs where they might prepare themselves for a life after they’re done with college.
That’s the dark side of the specialness. They’re cultivated from a very early age to become football players. And they don’t go through some of the same things that most college students do to become full-fledged adults. . . .
The title of your chapter on the life of current players inside in the NFL is called “Inside the Bubble.” Can you tell us how the National Football League functions as a bubble?
Rick Jones: I hate to refer to the bubble as a total institution, but in many respects, both in the NFL and in college, their whole lives center around the sport they play, so that everything else is secondary to football.
So if we’re in Green Bay and we’re preparing for the season, I might have my wife or girlfriend or other family members who are taking care of all my household duties and chores and responsibilities, and I’m going to spend from sun-up to sundown at the Packers’ facilities.
In addition, the professional team is going to take care of most of my basic needs. They’re going to feed me, they’re going to clothe me. They’re even going to try to teach me how to fill out a checkbook when I’m a rookie player. So this notion of the bubble is that everything is centered on being the best football player one can be, and removing all the things that would be unrelated to football, but that everybody else has to pay attention to or take care of themselves.
Picking up with that and looking at the various drawbacks to life in the bubble, one that was particularly striking was the wear that this football-centered life has on players’ relationships with their wives and families. There is a statement in the book that NFL teams want their players to get married, because it brings stability to their lives. But life in the NFL isn’t necessary good for marriages.
Jim: It’s the players’ belief that it would be a good thing for them to get married, because they think that it’s one more thing that the team wants them to do. I’m not so sure that the team says that or imposes that, but that’s certainly a belief among players, that it’s a sign of stability. Now imagine, though, the relationship that the players have with their wives, with their families, with those close to them, when they are essentially unavailable for 12-14 hours a day, when they’re tired and beat up—and players are beat up during the season—when they’re tired and beat up when they are away from the game, and they’re trying to concentrate on preparing for the game at the end of the week. As Rick said earlier, most of the details of everyday life are turned over to spouses or girlfriends or other family members.
To just take an example, when Brett Favre came to Green Bay, it wasn’t long after that he brought a brother and friend from Kiln, Mississippi, to come up and live with him. Now one might think that this is a guy bringing his posse along to enjoy a good time. But it’s not just that. It’s somebody there to shovel the walks when it snows, to shop so they’ve got something to eat, it’s some people to just take care of one’s life.
When it comes down to a marriage, what we see often – and I don’t want to characterize this as a bunch of bad guys taking advantage of their wives – but these relationships are often very one-sided. The wife has to also give her life completely over to managing the life of a player. What we’ve seen from many interviews with players’ wives is that they’ve given up quite a bit. And when players come to the end of their careers, wives are ready to set out and take up their own lives. That puts players in a very delicate situation, where they’re feeling at a loss and they need some sympathy for everything they’re just lost, while their wives are ready to take off running. And [the wives] are not all that sympathetic, because they’re finally getting to do what they need to do after putting in maybe twelve years of taking care of the player’s needs.
Rick: Jim really does hit on it, that wives, who are for the most part also college-educated, have made significant sacrifices. So when the end of the career arrives, they really do believe that it’s now their time. And of course, the football players may not be really ready to retire. They’re still trying to get back into the game. . . .
Let’s talk about the end of an NFL career. Speaking as a longtime fan of pro football, something I had never really been aware of is that most players’ careers do not end with a retirement announcement and a clear break from the league. The end of the average career is much more murky and drawn out.
Jim: There may not be a typical ending to a career, but one of the things we did discover is that it’s very uncommon for a player to decide he’s done, to call a press conference and say I’m retiring, and for that retirement to stick. Just turn back the page to Brett Favre’s several attempts to retire. But if you listen closely, even when players do want to retire and it seems to be on their own terms, they’re almost always leaving some small door open. Maybe an injury will happen, a wide receiver will go down later in the season, and then maybe you’ll want me back, because I know the playbook and I can step right in if I stay in shape.
What happens with the typical ending of a career – one typical pattern, anyway – is that players outlive their usefulness with a particular team, or they become too expensive relative to younger players. For example, George Koonce was a starting linebacker for the Packers; he experienced a couple of injuries; and at the end of his last season with the Packers – where he had not any inkling that his career was coming to an end – they simply told him they were going in another direction and they weren’t going to pick up the last year of his contract. Remember: in the NFL, no contract is guaranteed. No contract is guaranteed. Some guys get a lot of money up front with signing bonuses, but you can be cut any time. And so when the Packers decided to go in another direction, they simply told George they didn’t need his services anymore. He managed to hook up with Seattle at quite a reduced salary, moved himself out to Seattle, played a season, left town – with no word that he hadn’t done well – and simply didn’t hear from the Seahawks for several months. He has to call his agent. He has to call his coaches back in Seattle. He only hears in a roundabout way that Seattle is going to go in a different direction.
So here is George Koonce, who fully believes he is a productive, starting player in the NFL, who has never been slowly eased out of the picture, who started every game in his last year in Seattle, and he’s without a job. But nobody tells him he’s through, he’s washed-up. They simply tell him: “We’re going in a different direction. Stay ready. Maybe we’ll give you a call.” And that’s the problem that many players face. They don’t know that it’s over. They end up spending years staying ready. George spent two, almost three years, waiting by the phone, thinking that somebody was going to give him a call.
And working out and training.
Rick: It’s not only working out and training. It is not pursuing any other interests. So their focus is still trying to get back into the game, rather than moving on and getting more education or trying to start a new career.
And in the case of George, when his wife does tell him it’s over, he didn’t handle it too well.
Rick: You know, that tells you a little bit of how their identities revolve so firmly around this football thing. Without any other real interests going on, they just cling to football for as along as they possibly can. . . .
The book shows that NFL players are not prepared for working lives outside of football when their careers are over. But they’re also not prepared even for basic social interactions when they leave the league.
Jim: Unfortunately, that is sometimes true. Living in the bubble, living in a cultural milieu that’s extremely competitive, extremely masculine – it’s a world unlike anything else, where camaraderie and loyalty and competitiveness rule the day – and then suddenly, that goes away. It’s a world that’s dominated by big, strong, fast, smart black men. Then they’re asked to move into some other sort of environment, and it’s not only the big, strong, fast, smart black men who are fish out water; it’s the white guys, too. . . .
It’s an environment, players will universally contend, with a racial climate that they’ll see nowhere else in their lives. Race matters, but it doesn’t hold you back. When a player leaves that environment, when a player leaves the bubble, it’s not that he doesn’t necessarily have the skills, but he’s not well practiced in interacting in normal, everyday environments.
Rick: In addition to that, they also develop a certain sense of entitlement. When everything is done for you, there’s not a lot of social cost to even many of the public miscues they get involved in – when there’s someone who checks the color of their socks before a game to make sure they’re not violating uniform policy. When they’re not in the game anymore, all of that goes away. People don’t treat them as special as they’re used to.
The complete interview about the book Is There Life After Football? is available on the New Books in Sports podcast.
James Holstein and Richard Jones are both professors in the Department of Social and Cultural Studies at Marquette University. Their co-author, George Koonce, Jr., earned his doctorate at Marquette after his career in the NFL and is now vice-president for advancement at Marian University.
New York University Press, 2014. 336 pp. ISBN: 9781479862863