Robert Turner II was the first member of his family to go to college, attending James Madison University on an athletic scholarship. But he did so because of his love of football and a desire to play at a professional level.
“I majored in communications because that’s what the other players did,” says Turner who played football professionally in the now nonoperational United States Football League, the Canadian Football League, and briefly in the National Football League until his career abruptly ended.
Consider Turner one of the lucky ones. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and is an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Research and Leadership at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Science and also holds a position as a Research Scientist in the Center for Biobehavioral Health Disparities Research at Duke University.
One of his areas of interest is what happens to athletes when their playing days are done and, after amassing more 140 interviews with current and former NFL players and extensively researching the subject, he’s written (Oxford University Press 2018; $24.95). It’s a look at what is the most popular professional sports league in the U.S., one where some athletes at the height of their physical prowess can boast stratospheric salaries in the multimillions but then, often in just a few years, are no longer working.
“The stories of many of these players is heartbreaking,” says Turner. “I love these men and they’ve gone through a lot of pain and sorrow and it hurts to hear that but what kept me going was the awesome gift of being able to tell their stories.”
Turner describes his book as being about what happens upstream, the path that players take from high school and sometimes ever earlier through college and into professional sports. As for what happens after that, Turner says that society turns a deaf ear to their lives after college and the pros.
“People say well, they got their college education, they got all that money,” says Turner, who serves on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, D.C.
But many players don’t make millions. Without guaranteed contracts, the majority of players are forced out of the league after a few seasons with few health and retirement benefits.
Statistics show that more than three-quarters of retirees experience bankruptcy or financial ruin, two-thirds live with chronic pain, and many find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Turner believes that’s no accident. The powerful the labor agreements between the NFL and players doesn’t provide much in the way of job security. And because players dedicated to their game and dream of becoming a professional have little time to prepare for what to do when their time on the field is over and have little in the way of marketable skills.
“It doesn’t just start at the NFL,” he says. “Universities and colleges should make sure all these players have the resources they need. Many of these kids come from environments where they haven’t learned many basics in terms of finances, planning ahead and all the other tools they need to be successful after sports. The League generates $15 billion a year and yet players are treated like disposable commodities. We need to help them learn how to transition effectively.”
Turner is currently a technical advisor and consultant and is making an on-screen appearance in Student Athlete, a documentary which looks at “the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports” and features four current and former college athletes, including Kentucky basketball player Nick Richards. Co-produced by NBA star LeBron James, Student Athlete debuts October 2 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
“The documentary is an important story about this subject,” he says. “We need to take care of all the players not just the 300 Hall of Famers.”
What: Robert W. Turner II discusses Not for Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete. a Q&A and signing will follow the discussion.
When: Oct. 14TH from 3-4 p.m.
Where: The Seminary Co-Op Bookstore, 5751 S Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, Il
FYI: 773-684-1300; semcoop.com