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Interview: Dr Robert Turner

Dr Robert Turner is a sociologist and former professional football player, whose career spanned the USFL, CFL and NFL. His new book, Not For Long, examines how football players are treated at high school, college and professional levels and what happens to them when their careers are over. The following conversation has been edited down from a longer transcript.

How’s the book tour going? And what’s the reaction been like to the book?
I’ve really been surprised because you just don’t know how things are going to turn out. I’ve gotten a really terrific response from former NFL athletes. Last night I was with Joe Phillips, who spent 14 years with Kansas City, the Chargers and a couple of other places, and his response was like many others I’ve received – including from journalists like Allen Schwartz, who writes for the New York Times. They said the book was well-researched, thorough, well written and really hits the nail on the head about the player experience.

Further reading: Not For Long review

I know that the book grew out of your doctoral dissertation. What kind of steps did you have to take to turn your dissertation into the book?
Actually, it took three rewrites. That was primarily because when I first wrote the dissertation, I did not want my voice in it at all. I wanted it to be a research project that was giving athletes a voice. I was trying to explain the league from the athletes’ perspective because as a sociologist my training is to look at people’s behaviours, how they make meaning, how they understand the world within a social structure. There was a classic agency structure argument. So I wanted the athletes to explain their world and to somewhat minimise my presence.

The second thing is that the dissertation did not cover issues around race. The reason I didn’t touch race is that I didn’t want to be that classic African-American guy who is only writing about race. The third part is, I did not want to talk about masculinity. These were people that I got to know very well and I didn’t want guys to feel like I was taking a postmodern look at ‘Men Behaving Badly’ or something like that.

But I am very fortunate to have a great relationship with Dr Carol Stack, UC Berkeley Emeritus Professor, and we sat across the table every week for two years. I would write, she would critique it and send me back to write again. And she told me that there were three things that I had to write about: I had to insert myself into the story; I had to write about race because the NFL is 70 per cent black; and since it’s an all-male league, I had to write about masculinity.

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I don’t know if you would agree, but it seems that the college level is where there’s the greatest unfairness for players. It’s this huge, money-generating machine and players are prohibited from sharing any of that. But they cannot get to the pros without going through college.
I wouldn’t use the word ‘fair’ myself, but I don’t think it’s that an improper word to use, either. I think the college system is corrupt, and I don’t mean corrupt financially, but morally corrupt. I think colleges just should not be in the business of sports.

When we talk about college football, the first thing people want to talk about is money. They want to talk about how unfair it is to the athletes. I say to them, if you buy the fact that there are all these inequities built into the college game, which I write about in the book, and you agree that these are fundamental problems, then would paying the athletes for their labour solve these inequities? And I think you have to say no, paying the players wouldn’t solve those problems.

If that’s the case, then we’re looking at human rights issues. These people are being treated unfairly because of the large sums of money the schools generate and the competing interests that creates. You can’t say you’re trying to generate $160 million, like Ohio State, but at the same time making sure that these kids get a high-value education. Those things just can’t exist at the same time. This is how good-hearted people with great intentions can still wind up doing harm to people. It’s very tempting, and very easy, to put systems in place that don’t serve the athlete but that serve the university very well.

If paying college athletes wouldn’t solve the problems, could they be solved by allowing players to be drafted into the NFL straight from high school, so that the ones who go to college are the ones who want to be there?
I don’t think that’s going to help at all. I think that would further cause problems, from a personal development perspective. I think LeBron James is really showing us where the future might be going. I don’t remember the young athlete’s name, but he was being recruited by Syracuse and chose instead to take an internship with New Balance. [Robert is talking about Darius Bazley, who shares an agent with LeBron James and is foregoing college to play in the NBA’s development league while working as an intern.] He’s making $200,000, so he’s getting paid for his talent. He’s not getting paid a whole bunch but he’s getting paid more than anybody else his age and he’s going to learn something in addition to playing basketball.

What we need to do is ensure that young men and women have life skills well before they enter the pros. That’s where I feel like colleges are exploiting people. They are saying ‘we’re going to take care of you once you get here’ but the fact is they go into communities and harvest these athletes from the same neighborhoods over and over again, and they know the deficiencies some of these athletes have before they even get to campus. Why don’t they spend some of those millions helping those kids [to be] well prepared for college so that when they get there, they’re not vulnerable?

It would be great if colleges would do that but how do we change the system so that it’s in their interest to do it?
I’m convinced, just like you probably are, that they are not going to do it on their own. We know people are getting an inferior education that makes it more difficult for them to get into regular college. And we see people from these same communities being harvested to play in college. We should say to our institutions, to the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and others, that we want an athletic degree from this university to mean the same as a regular degree does to the average student. Whatever the opportunities are that open doors for you with that degree as an economics major, we should make sure that those athletes have those same options.

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That means putting in programs across the state to make sure that the most talented eighth graders get summertime training so they become competitive in getting into university by the time they become seniors in high school. I think that if we, the alumni, the regular students and taxpayers demand that from universities, then we would start to see differences. We would see that if alumni said: ‘I’m not giving you any more money until you prove to me that five or ten years after college these athletes are faring as well as the rest of the general student body.’

Moving on to the pros, I wanted to ask about the intertwining of measures the NFL says are about ensuring parity between teams and measures that lead to players having less control of their careers, shorter careers, less money and so on.
Art Modell said the NFL owners are 32 fat cats who vote Republican but run their business like socialists. The owners could care less, most of them, who wins the Super Bowl. Winning the Super Bowl is the ego. Jerry Jones definitely wants to win a Super Bowl, no question, but for the most part they care about what Roger Goodell said years ago. He said that by 2025 we want to generate about $25 billion of revenue annually, which meant that they needed to put on about a billion dollars a year. They share that money. That’s their golden goose. That’s what they really care about.

My argument is that the NFL does not know who’s going to be a star. They don’t know who’s going to be a journeyman. And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Tom Brady is Tom Brady because as soon as he leaves they’ll plug-in somebody else. They don’t really know who that is going to be but they benefit from having superstars, they benefit from having stars and they benefit a great deal from having journeymen because everybody is interchangeable.

I start with that premise. They want parity because every year my New York Giants have got a chance to be Super Bowl contenders before the first kick. They can write about them and talk about them on television and that’s what has fans holding on. We love it. The system is not going to be changed from the owners’ perspective. It’s got to be changed from the players’ perspective.

Now, what would it take for the players to make this kind of change? They only have so many assets that they can leverage in a labour negotiation. I take a Marxist perspective: once they sell that labour to the owner, then the owners can do with that labour anything they want and that’s essentially what we see. The leverage point for athletes would be to say, ‘we need to break the collective bargaining agreement and we need to take the draft out of the league altogether’.

Like I said, I was with Joe Phillips last night and he said, “We’ve worked really hard and now we have free agency”, and I said, “You actually don’t have free agency”. The reason is that the time when you are most marketable is when you’re transitioning from college into the pros. But because the teams can literally own you, [through the draft], they get to reevaulate you after four or five years and determine your value at that point. It is really not a free market.

The players would have to hold out to break that bond but they won’t ever do that. Why? Look what happened last time. The players were locked out and a bunch of athletes started borrowing money at very high interest rates because they couldn’t maintain a lifestyle. The owners are billionaires; the players are millionaires but they’re only millionaires as long as the games keep being played. If the games stop being played, they don’t have any assets.

Imagine if the players decided to start looking at this collectively and say that the way we divvy-up the money among ourselves is going to be quite different. Instead of, you know, Cam Newton, getting $20 million as a starting quarterback, maybe Cam Newton says: ‘I’m going to get $2 million and the guy at the end of the bench takes $1 million a year but we then are able to pay a long-term annuity, so for the rest of my life I’m going to get $2 million and you’re going to get $1 million.’ What if the players said to the owners as part of the collective bargaining agreement that they want to invest in the same things [stadiums, teams, and so on] so that we can start to pay long-term dividends to our players?

As you say, it’s hard to be confident that that kind of change is going to happen.
Today you have owners like Robert Kraft, the owner down in Jacksonville [Shahid Khan], you have Daniel Snyder in Washington. They are very sophisticated businessmen. They understand management-labour [relations], they understand how to leverage assets. And they’re negotiating against men who, by and large, come from the working class and have spent the whole of their young lives being athletes. They [the athletes] are at an inherent disadvantage when they’re at the table.

As I point out in the book, the NFL has been very good at saying to the players, ‘we will consult you on issues of labour, but on issues of running the team, you need to leave that to us, because we know best how to run a professional sports organisation’. The other problem is that owners can say to the NFL player, convincingly, that football is a young man’s game and the player’s value is in how healthy you are. Football has a short lifespan, therefore you’ve got to get everything you can today.

I want to finish by asking you about books in general. If you were stranded on a desert island, what five books would you take?
One that I really enjoyed reading is by Damon Tweedy and it’s called Black Man in a White Coat. He’s a doctor and he writes about his experiences. He was a basketball player and he went on to be a doctor at Duke. He writes about some of the racial issues he had to deal with. Another one I would recommend is The Other Wes Moore. The Wes Moore who writes the book is from inner-city Baltimore and went on to the Naval Academy and he realises there is another Wes Moore [from the same neighbourhood] who winds up killing a police officer. And he asks how did one person go on to have this incredible life and the other goes to prison for murder.

Another wonderful book is The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, and the reason that book really works for me is that when I graduated from James Madison University my grandmother was 84 years old. She came to my graduation and she gave me a $100 bill. She was crying and said: “I have waited my whole life for one of my kids or one of my grandkids to graduate college and you have fulfilled my dream.” She had nine kids and she only had a third-grade degree and I didn’t even know the depth of sacrifices that my grandmother and other family members had to make for me to be able to get a college degree. All my brothers and sisters all went on to get college degrees. And this book, The Warmth of Other Suns is about African-American families that migrated from the south after slavery, who dreamed of having better lives for themselves, and the sacrifices they had to make in order for their children and their lineage to do better.

The fourth book I would choose is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. He writes to his son about what it means to be an African-American male in America. That is a book that has meant a lot to me. Those are four and the fifth would be maybe just a classic – The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That was a seminal book for me and opened my eyes.

Although all of these books are about themes around being African-American in America, they are so important to me because they challenged me to think critically and that’s what I’ve tried to do in my book.

You can buy Not For Long at Amazon US, Amazon UK and all good bookshops. Follow Dr Turner on Twitter and at his website.

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