Three academics from Marquette University, one of whom (Koonce) is a former NFL player, apply some sociological techniques to analyzing the situations of ex–NFL players.
Readers hoping for either excoriations or excuses will find both in the authors’ reasoned and reasonable approach. “When a player leaves the league, everything changes,” write the authors. But those changes are neither uniform nor particularly predictable. Some, of course, end up in dire financial straits; others (OJ Simpson, “Mercury” Morris, Lawrence Taylor) appear in criminal courts; still others (Jim McMahon, Earl Campbell) suffer serious, lingering physical and mental consequences of participation in their violent sport. But the authors—though they shine a harsh light on the cases of failure (including an entire chapter on injuries)—also highlight the success stories of many retired players, Koonce’s included (he went back to school, earned a doctorate and served as the athletic director at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). Koonce’s story remains a touchstone throughout. We hear about the cases of ex-players who earn advanced degrees, succeed in the business world and participate heavily in philanthropy. But we also learn some facts about standard NFL contracts (once players are released, their salaries end), health insurance, retirement benefits (which commence at 55) and the amazingly short careers of most players: The average is 3.5 years. The authors also expose the enormous peer pressure among active players to spend their money and live large. Few young men (especially since many of them come from modest, often poor backgrounds) can resist such temptations. The authors also look at the family lives of players (perhaps surprisingly: Most remain married)—and at the difficult experiences that players’ wives have: They are responsible for just about everything quotidian during a player’s active career.
Although the prose can plod, the information and insights engage in a rousing race for the end zone.