“The history of professional team sports in the US is a story of exploitation of gifted athletes by a few wealthy people who call themselves owners,” said Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association, in 1971. He called on players to work together so that they could benefit from a fairer share of the spoils of the NFL.
Further reading: Dr Robert Turner interview
Today, the big names enjoy enormous contracts and those who make it beyond four years in the NFL can, through free agency, decide where they play next. However, the average career of an NFL player lasts just over three years. Most don’t make the big money and are out of the game before reaching free agency.
Few retire through choice. Most will be cut for someone cheaper or younger, or forced into retirement by injury. Out of the game, many live with chronic pain and fall into debt. Dr Robert W Turner, a former player in the USFL, CFL and NFL, wanted to examine the effect of this “forced or unexpected retirement” on player’s lives. As a sociologist (this book grew out of his PhD research), he is well positioned to analyse their experiences and draw wider conclusions about football and society.
Turner talks to several former pros, follows young hopefuls at coaching camps and examines the high school and college game. His central argument is that the football industry uses the players, who are predominantly young, black men, to make vast amounts of money, while colluding to give them as little as possible in return. Along the way, the industry does little to prepare them for the day when it all ends. It’s well argued and his case is worth outlining briefly.
The football-industrial complex
Turner finds a system in which players are under constant pressure to prove they can keep their place, or make it to the next level. He writes that just 6.4 per cent of high school players will play NCAA college football and, of those, only 1.6 per cent will play professionally. The rejection, when it comes, takes a heavy psychological toll on many former players.
At every level, an industry makes money from the players. Trainers, coaches and marketers promise to prepare high school players for college, and college players for the pros. The colleges make millions from football, while the players are paid nothing. In the pros, some players become millionaires, but they do so by risking their bodies for billionaires, who act as a cartel to keep wages down.
Turner contrasts the parents who will pay $240 for an after-school football academy with high schools in poor neighbourhoods, where the kids can’t even afford $25 for a two-day summer camp. He accepts that college players recieve ‘free’ education in return for playing but shows how, even there, they get a poor deal.
Players are often not allowed to choose their degree and instead pushed into an easy subject so they get the grades needed to be eligible to play. They don’t even get four-year scholarships, just renewable one-year grants, so the college can ditch them without letting them complete a degree.
And they have little chance to develop the independence that most students learn at college; their timetables are controlled and ‘academic advisors’ walk them through their work. They are told to put academics above football but, if they do, they are punished.
As former North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Butch Davis put it: “If you wanted an education, you should have gone to Harvard. You came to North Carolina to play football.”
The NFL cartel
Many players would skip college altogether and turn pro if they could, writes Turner, but the NFL’s draft eligibility rules effectively make that impossible. The arrangement suits the NFL because it can “draft from a talent pool of college athletes created from a mix of private and public funding and alumni donations. As such, the NFL is able to shed costs associated with developing talent.”
The draft keeps wages artificially low by ensuring that players cannot offer their services to the highest bidder. At the end of that first contract, most players will be cut and replaced with a new, cheaper rookie. Only the very best are re-signed or picked up by another team. The salary cap incentivises teams to keep finding the cheapest talent available.
There are two standard arguments against Turner’s position: first, nobody forces the players to play. And, second, that they get paid very well for playing a game and therefore don’t deserve sympathy. Neither one stands up well to Turner’s case. He argues that football and sports in general are so entrenched in the culture – particularly black culture – that there is massive social pressure on black boys with talent to become athletes. He asks, does this pressure rob the black community of its lawyers, doctors and scientists?
The response about pay addresses only part of Turner’s argument. High school and college players do not get paid and the overwhelming majority of them will never play football for money. The small number that are paid risk their long-term physical health, sacrifice lots of typical employee freedoms and, in return, receive a smaller share of the profits than they should.
After a period in which NFL players have been criticised for peacefully protesting against police brutality, this is a timely book. The rights of football players – especially in college and professional football – deserve greater scrutiny. Fans should read this book to get a better understanding of what players have to deal with in the name of entertainment and the challenges they face once their careers end. I hope that Not For Long sparks a much-needed debate.
Photo: Keith Allison