The Harsh Reality of the Game We All Love

Former NFL Linebacker George Koonce used his Doctoral Thesis to speak out on the dangers of playing in the NFL

“Through my personal experience and the experiences of those whom I have interviewed for this study, I conclude that playing in the NFL is detrimental to one’s life and well-being, especially for the players who are engulfed in the role of a professional athlete.”

Wow. To see these words attributed not to an outsider, but to a former player who experienced his share of success on the football field is eye opening. George Koonce was a member of the Green Bay Packers’ 1997 Super Bowl winning team, and a member of the Packers team that lost the following year in the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos. Koonce has just completed his Doctorate in Philosophy at Marquette University. He wrote a 70,000 word thesis titled Role Transition of National Football League Retired Athletes: A Grounded Theory Approach in order to fulfill the requirements for the degree. CBSSports’ Mike Freeman has the highlights from Koonce’s dissertation:

“The main thrust of Koonce’s argument is that a lack of identity, extreme pain from the injuries of playing football, drug addiction (including painkillers) and being unprepared for life after football are far more detrimental for ex-NFL players than realized by almost everyone in the sport, including those who play, coach and manage it. But Koonce doesn’t shy away from giving players their fair share of blame for their post-football troubles.”

Some highlights of his research include:

  • A 1989 study of former NFL players reveals that 62 percent of those surveyed reported leaving football with permanent injuries. The study also said players reported emotional problems with only 21 percent saying they had no emotional issues during the transition period out of football.
  • Another study: 21 percent of participants experienced four or more career changes since leaving football. “The relatively high number of changes,” Koonce writes, “indicates that the transition process for athletes is a rather volatile experience.”
  • One study of former NFL players regarding depression and pain concluded that 14.7 percent of respondents experienced moderate to severe depression and 47.6 percent reported difficulty with pain as quite or very common. Frequently reported problems include having trouble sleeping, financial difficulties, marital or relationship problems and problems with fitness, exercise and aging. The participants experienced levels of depressive symptoms similar to those of the general population, writes Koonce, but the impact of those symptoms was compounded by high levels of difficulty with pain.
  • Four distinct stages of transition are identified in a 1991 study: (1) awareness that the end is near prior to career termination; (2) denial during the first two to six months; (3) transition marked by conflict and trauma, lasting up to five years and (4) acceptance of a new reality. These stages are similar to those defined by Kubler-Ross for death and dying.

For more, follow the link: Ex-Packer Koonce gives inside look at player trauma, transitions


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