Robert Turner, SMHS assistant professor, explores how athletes retool their identity when their athletic careers end.
By Kristen Mitchell
Playing professional football is sort of like a drawn-out apprenticeship, said Robert Turner, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. From youth sports and on, players spend their entire lives training for an opportunity that will last only a few years.
By the time athletes are retiring from the game in their late 20s or early 30s, their identity is wrapped up in their accomplishments on the field. Dr. Turner’s new book, “Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete,” explores this transition in an athlete’s career and why some players are better prepared for life after football compared to others.
These types of foundational transitions are not exclusive to football—career politicians, ballerinas, concert pianists and anyone else who trains for a long time to pursue a specific goal experiences similar tectonic shifts. Dr. Turner, an expert in the SMHS Department of Clinical Research and Leadership, experienced this transition firsthand when he left the world of professional football. His question now is: What happens when you can no longer do the thing you love?
Dr. Turner recently spoke about his new book with GW Today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You recently published “Not For Long: The Life and Career of the NFL Athlete.” What inspired you to write this book?
A: The primary reason I wrote the book was because I wanted to give voice to the athletes. I wanted to write a piece or do an investigation that really examined why some athletes have a difficult time in their transition to life after football and why other athletes seem to be able to make that adjustment well, and I wanted to be able to focus on athletes telling their own stories and having their lives uncovered the way that they might want to deliver that voice themselves.
Q: Were there situations you witnessed or dealt with in your own football career that influenced your decision to research this subject?
A: Yes, looking back on my career years later I realized there were times when I was playing that some of my friends, some of my teammates, I thought, “football means so much to them, and I wonder what would happen if this person didn’t have this game, or this person wasn’t playing professionally.” It provides a lot of structure in your life, you have to have a lot of discipline. During the season guys seem to be doing quite well, but during the offseason you just kind of never knew what was going to happen to some guys, and I always wondered, well, what happens when the fourth quarter is over, and there is no more time left on the clock, and these guys are not invited back.
During the time that I was playing, I never realized, I never stopped to think how would my life personally be once football was done, and the transition was a lot tougher for me than I anticipated. I never really spent any time thinking about that, so this book allowed me to. In some ways it was restorative, and it healed me into understanding some of the decisions I made after I finished playing.
Q: What does the world look like for players after they transition to careers away from the game?
When it comes to the emotional support of having that loss, having that disconnect from your identity and the role that you play, and then no longer being able to do it, is really, really challenging for many guys. I’ve had several players tell me it’s taken up to 10 years after they walked away from the game to be able to come to grips with, to answer some of these questions about who am I, what do I do with myself now, what kind of purpose do I have outside of sports.
Q: Is there anything football fans can do to ensure the sport is safer for athletes?
A: The most important thing for football to become safer, and this is one of the things I try to emphasize in the book, is that all the people who are stakeholders in the game have to demand that the game is safer. We have to be involved.
What parents need to be educated about, the real issues in sports. We need to make sure our coaches are well-educated about the concussions. We need to demand that there are athletic trainers or training professionals on the sidelines of all games...I just think we have to raise our level of understanding, awareness and education, and protect athletes on every level. Because it’s a wonderful game, but too often we have left it in the hands of chance and too small amount of coaches to tell us what’s going on.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what more do you think the NFL should be doing to protect and support players?
A: I know for sure that the NFL, and I’m confident from what I’ve seen on the college level, they’ve done a great job. We can no longer lead with your head and any type of contact with your head will result in a penalty. Players have been resisting that change, and it’s going to take a while to change that culture, but from what I hear from coaches all over the country and when I watch practices, they are teaching different techniques that make the game safer in terms of protecting the head.