Robert W. Turner II: Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete

Thursday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m., free

Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh 

When Robert W. Turner II’s professional football career ended, he had dedicated more than half of his life to the sport.

“I spent sixteen years, from the time I was playing basically peewee football all the way up to playing into the pros in the USFL [United States Football League], the Canadian Football League, and the NFL,” Turner says. “At that point, when I was twenty-eight years old, I had spent more time in the game than I did out of the game.”

That level of commitment is not uncommon for those who aspire to turn pro. Neither is having a brief career—most NFL players are out of the league after about three seasons. (Turner played half a season with the San Francisco 49ers in addition to several seasons in the USFL and CFL.) When the playing days are over, many former athletes experience a loss of identity and purpose.

“From my personal experience, I knew that I had a real difficult time transitioning to life after football,” Turner says.

It was that struggle that inspired Turner to write Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete, which he will discuss at Quail Ridge Books on January 31 alongside Ron W. Rice Jr., chairman of the board of the National Football League Alumni Association and president of the NFLAA Detroit Chapter.

Turner, who has a master’s and doctorate in sociology and is currently an assistant professor in the department of clinical research and leadership at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Science, conducted a four-year ethnographic study and interviewed more than one hundred current and former NFL players, as well as their families, spouses, and coaches.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How did you gain access to so many of these athletes?’” Turner says. “Well, it was pretty easy to tell them, ‘I’ve been in your shoes. I’ve been through the whole exact process that you have been in.’ And even former athletes: ‘I’m in the same exact place you are now.’”

In the NFL, there are no guaranteed contracts, which makes players more expendable and financially vulnerable. And the physicality of the game takes its toll on athletes long after they hang up their cleats; chronic health issues range from obesity to traumatic brain injury. Many of the problems players face during and after their careers stem from the power structure of the NFL, which, by design, disproportionately favors team owners, general managers, and coaches over the athletes on the field.

“No matter how you look at it in the NFL, it comes down to a labor dispute,” Turner says. “The NFL owners look at the players as a commodity that’s easily exchangeable, so what I talk about in the book is: You have a huge reserve army of labor. … [Owners] know they have eighteen hundred slots to fill, and they get thirty or forty thousand people coming out of college every year who want to play in this position. Well, at that point, you can essentially say in your labor agreement that you’re bargaining from a position of power, and the players are bargaining from a position of weakness.”

When asked what measures the NFL could take to better equip athletes for life after football, Turner disputes the premise.

“That’s supposing that the NFL is interesting in helping the athletes,” he says. “I believe what the NFL owners believe is they have provided athletes with all the resources and benefits they need to transition to life after football, and this is why they’re so unwilling to provide any more.”

Instead of waiting on the league to change, Turner says young people need to be better prepared for the business side of being a professional athlete.

“I think one of the things that has to happen is that so much earlier, like around eighth grade, we have to start grooming young people who are going to pursue these careers,” he says. “Give them skills and ability to manage money, understand money, understand ownership, understand management-labor relations—understand them real early in life. So, as they move along, when they sign their first contract, they understand the game is more than just putting on helmets and shoulder pads.”

And collegiate football programs, which essentially act as “feeder systems to the NFL,” can do their part, too, Turner says.

“They have to do a better job preparing these football players while they’re in college instead of making them take classes that may or may not help them in the long run,” he says. “Let’s make sure we carve out some time to give them the education they might need to function as a professional athlete and well beyond. And even if they don’t [turn pro], they can start entrepreneurial classes to teach them how to survive and how to create and how to use their talents well beyond the football field.”