Saturday, 27 September 2014

Advance Book Review: Is There Life After Football? by James Holstein, Richard Jones, and George Koonce


There are a little under 1,700 players currently on NFL rosters. All of them will at some point retire. Some will even do so more than once. And yet despite the fact that retirement is such a common occurrence, as noted by the authors of Is There Life After Football, the act is usually a private affair met with little fanfare. Granted, a few superstars can leave with some press attention and spectacle as they hold a press conference announcing them "retiring as a ____" but in most cases the decision is reluctantly and quietly made when all 32 teams take a pass on their services. The media has been devoting plenty of time to covering the mental health effects of former NFLers, but there really haven't been many wide investigations of what exactly players do after retirement. What careers do they pursue, what problems do they face, what impact does football have on them re-entering non-NFL life? Is There Life After Football? is three sociologists' attempt to answer these questions and does a fine job at examining NFL retirees and how the league's social institutions impact players far after their athletic careers.

The book draws heavily from the experiences from co-author George Koonce, a former linebacker for the Packers and Seahawks. Koonce didn't have the easiest transition after leaving the NFL, battling depression and a sense of aimlessness. It also draws from his research, as he eventually received a Doctorate in Sociology and wrote his thesis on NFL players' retirement transitions which included in-depth interviews with 21 former players. The insider access helps keep the book from ever veering into vague academic theorizing and firmly grounded in the real-world. The authors also wisely understand that Koonce is not a completely representative case, and his anecdotes and experiences are used as springboards for broader discussions rather than narrowly focusing on one case.

The sections generally follow a chronological progression throughout a player's life and how such events affect their post-career futures. The authors illustrate how many players have grown up with a myopic obsession with becoming a pro that prevented them from really focusing on post-career plans. They then proceed through chapters on life inside the single-minded NFL bubble, financial pitfalls, and the game's health impact. These read similarly to a long Sports Illustrated report. The final and perhaps most interesting chapter showcases the three sociologists drawing from academia to analyze how many of the problems faced by players have come about. It features them analyzing topics such as how players' senses are identity is often shattered by their retirement and how the hyper-regimented NFL lifestyle can lead former pros to struggle with retirement, the concept of role engulfment and its relation to the NFL, and name-dropping the likes of Emile Durkheim and others in the process. I found the chapter to be engaging and informative and never wading into "dry academic text" territory.

Is There Life After Football? greatly benefits from over 100 interviews with former pros, with many interviews yielding considerable insights. Koonce served as director of player development on the Packers and is able to tap into his rolodex to get former players from many decades. These accounts are bolstered by larger research studies from Koonce and others, delivering sobering statistics such as that 27% of retirees between the ages of 30-49 left voluntarily.

Is There Life After Football? also takes a very evenhanded look at NFL retirement as is by no means a hatchet job listing bankruptcies and sob stories (though there certainly are quite a bit of both). Sure, plenty of players have their issues once their careers end, but successes such as Alan Page (Associate Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court) and Heath Shuler (former Congressman) should illustrate that retirement outcomes can run the gamut. It is was a surprisingly entertaining read for a book by three academics from a university publisher, and it held my interest besides a few passages that extensively detailed the intricacies of NFL pensions.

In Sum
Is There Life After Football? is an intelligent and engaging read about how NFL players transition.to normal life. While most accounts of post-NFL lives have predominately centered around concussions and other health problems, the book takes a wider sociological lens to the subject. It is an original approach that is executed well, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in learning more on the topic. It seems like it would be especially enjoyable to fans of fare such as HBO's Real Sports and ESPN's Outside the Lines. 

8/10