Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. We are slipping into your Freakonomics Radio feed today with a bonus episode: it is a conversation with Jason Kelce, the longtime center for the Philadelphia Eagles. In case you don’t follow American football: Kelce is one of the Eagles’ best and most popular players, and the Eagles are one of the best and most popular teams in the N.F.L. They won the Super Bowl in 2018, and last season they made it back to the Super Bowl, but they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. One of the Chiefs’ best players happens to be Jason Kelce’s little brother Travis. This was the first time that brothers had ever played against each other in the Super Bowl.
The Eagles and Chiefs are two of the best teams in the N.F.L. this year too, and they happen to be playing each other again this week, on November 20th. At the start of this season, we put out an episode called “When Is a Superstar Just Another Employee?” It was about a survey conducted by the N.F.L. Players Association, the union, which they turned into a report card that graded all 32 teams on their workplace conditions. Jason Kelce was one of the voices we heard from in that episode, but only for a few minutes. The full interview with him was well over an hour. So I thought you might like to hear the whole thing now.
The Kelce brothers have become a phenomenon over the past year or so. They make one of the most popular podcasts around, called New Heights. They’re in TV commercials together, along with their mom. Jason was the subject of a documentary on Amazon Prime. Travis, if you haven’t heard — but I’m guessing you have — Travis has been dating Taylor Swift. But it was Jason who was just named one of People magazine’s sexiest men of the year. The interview you’re about to hear was done in late spring, before the current N.F.L. season began. So there will not be any Taylor Swift gossip, sorry about that. But I think you’ll agree that Jason Kelce is an unusually interesting and open-minded person, a curious and positive person, and if you enjoy this conversation even half as much as I did, that will be a lot.
If you’d like to hear more of these full interviews from the episodes we produce, you should become a member of our new Freakonomics Radio Plus program. You’ll get a bonus episode like this one every week; and you can also listen ad-free. To sign up, visit the Freakonomics Radio show page on Apple Podcasts, or go to freakonomics.com/plus. Okay, here now is Jason Kelce.
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Stephen DUBNER: Thank you so much for being here.
Jason KELCE: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m excited.
DUBNER: Do you like being a podcast god, in addition to being a football god?
KELCE: I do enjoy my 9-to-5 and this side job I have going on right now.
DUBNER: I guess it was on your show where you talked about your relationship with your brother and how the podcast has changed it. That’s true? You weren’t just saying that?
KELCE: Yeah. I don’t know that — if I did say change, maybe that’s not the right word.
DUBNER: Amplify, maybe, or something?
KELCE: Yeah, I think it’s definitely amplified. And we just have talked more than we’ve talked — you know, we’ve both been playing football in the N.F.L. for over a decade now. And our first ten years, we didn’t communicate as much. You also realize, especially being an older brother, how much your younger brother has changed. It’s not the same big-brother-little-brother relationship that it used to be when we were in college and in high school together. I think now it’s much more of a brotherly friendship and love for each other, and you kind of see the differences in one another in the way you think about things. I do think Trav always viewed our relationship a little bit more competitive, being the younger brother, right? He was always trying to win and he compared himself a lot to me growing up, according to my dad. So to me, the relationship was never that. But I think — it’d be interesting how my brother would answer that. And I think, you know, he’s far exceeded me in career achievements in the N.F.L.
DUBNER: He just plays an easier position, come on.
KELCE: I wish that was the case. I would go play that. But I think he’s far exceeded me in a lot of those regards and just beat me in a Super Bowl — which, not the greatest highlight for me. So maybe he doesn’t feel as competitive, I guess, as he used to. I think he’s finally cemented himself as surpassing the big brother.
DUBNER: It looked like he was sad for you after the Super Bowl. Yeah?
KELCE: Yeah. So, I thought a lot about it a lot the night before. Like, “What am I going to do if we win, and how am I going to greet Travis,” right? He was sad. And that’s one of the reasons, for me, I didn’t really want that interaction to be that long. You know, I gave him a hug, and I’m like “Go celebrate with your teammates.” Because I didn’t want him to be in that state of mind. You know, I wanted him to be happy and celebrating with his teammates and enjoying the fact that he’s a world champion.
DUBNER: What were you going to say to him? Did you figure it out — if you won?
KELCE: Man, I did have something. And I’m trying to remember what it was. It has since gone out of my mind — I’ve tried to block as much of that day and everything out as much as possible.
DUBNER: Coming in second when the stakes are high is no fun, is it?
KELCE: It’s not. You put so much work in, and the team is so tight at that point because of the success and longevity of the season. You really get to a point where you think you’re the best in the world. And I still think — on another day, we might have been. But knowing what it’s like to share that moment with a group of guys and coaches and staff and organization. And knowing that that team, with how good it was and how tight it was, isn’t going to have that final achievement, is rough.
DUBNER: All right, just so I have it — if you would, just introduce yourself, say your name and what you do.
KELCE: Sure. I am Jason Kelce. I play center for the Philadelphia Eagles, and also host a podcast with my brother Travis.
DUBNER: Why the name of the podcast New Heights? Where’d that come from?
KELCE: So we’re from Cleveland Heights, so we were looking for a way to draw on that. When we were going through the different names, that one sounded like the one that is what we’re trying to do constantly, right? You’re always trying to take your game to new heights. And now we’re in a different game, we’re in the podcast game, but still try to be great at whatever you do. And I think that that’s one of the things that we want to continue to run with. And we look forward to doing more things of celebrating individuals that are the best of what they do. Expertise and watching people who are really great at things is one of the most enjoyable things to witness and celebrate.
DUBNER: Just tell me a little bit about your family, growing up, what your folks did and what the house — you know, what the family was like, what you were into, and so on.
KELCE: Yeah. So grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. We were for a short stint, where I have few memories, we were in North Ridgeville, Ohio — my brother probably doesn’t remember that portion at all. My mom worked in banking her whole life. Started off as a teller and worked her way up to a V.P. And primarily in low-income-housing loans. She worked at KeyBank, the largest building in the city. My brother and I could see it from our high school, Cleveland Heights High School, so we always knew where mom was. My dad was a steelworker in Cleveland. He ended up becoming a sales rep where he was in and out of steel mills quite a bit.
DUBNER: And did you have siblings beyond your brother?
KELCE: No, just Travis and I.
DUBNER: And tell me about you as an athlete as a kid. Were you a — how good were you and at what sports when you were younger? Let’s say from zero to 12 or 13.
KELCE: My father believed in us trying as many things as possible. So I did everything from — my first sports were soccer and baseball, then to hockey, karate, golf, wrestling, lacrosse. I eventually settled into my high school sports of being football, hockey, and lacrosse. You know, I don’t want to be cocky, but I was good at pretty much all of those sports. I was one of the better players on the field no matter what sport it was.
DUBNER: Would you say the same is true for most N.F.L. athletes?
KELCE: I don’t know. You know, football is tricky because if you’re big, fast, and strong, there’s a good chance you’re going to be good at football. There are other sports that I think require more skill or repetition that I’ve seen high, high caliber N.F.L. players struggle with. Obviously, golf is one that anybody who plays knows that that’s a difficult game.
DUBNER: What’s your handicap now, if you don’t mind me asking?
KELCE: Oh, man, I don’t know that I play enough to have a handicap. I’m happy if I break 90, let me say that. I hit some shots that are spectacular pretty much every round I’m out there. And then also three-putt and chunk wedges around the green.
DUBNER: I know that game. I’m familiar with that game.
KELCE: So I guess another thing from growing up, you know, we grew up in a very — what’s the word I’m — a liberal town. So we played music. We did a lot of artistic things as well.
DUBNER: Right, you played sax in a jazz —
KELCE: I did. I played sax in jazz band in high school. So we got exposed to a lot. And I think that that ultimately has helped us be better football players.
DUBNER: Huh, why do you say that?
KELCE: Well, I think that you draw on all of the experiences and you take things that you learn in one craft or one sport — whether it’s hand-eye coordination in baseball, or in my view, one of the best ways to learn the value of practice is to try and learn an instrument. There’s few things that you’ll get immediate feedback as to why practice is important. I think the skills and knowledge and proprioception and different things you learn trying different sports or activities, the different parts of your brain, and the way you think — whether it’s analytically or much more on a kind of in-the-moment, free-spirit kind of level — all of these things can be used in the game of football.
DUBNER: What about handling pressure? Let me ask you a question about the Super Bowl. Did the Super Bowl feel like a fundamentally different game, at least for a little while?
KELCE: You know, the intensity and emotions of it are very, very high. But obviously, this being my second one, I had some familiarity with it. The game is the exact same. The emotion and intensity and all of that is going to enhance what’s happening in your head.
DUBNER: For better or worse, or it could be either?
KELCE: Well, it can be both. I think it’s worse when you try to do things outside of either your job or the things that you’ve done to get there. And I’ve been fortunate, both of the Super Bowls that I’ve been in to have players that have won it. And Chris Long, who had won a Super Bowl in New England right before we played in Super Bowl LII with the Eagles, that was his biggest advice was, you know, “Don’t let the moment dictate things to you. Do everything that got us here. And when the play is there, you’ll be ready to make the play.”
DUBNER: Did you feel you were able to do that in this past year’s Super Bowl?
KELCE: Yeah, for the most part. I mean, you always have plays you want back. You know, you’re never going to go out there and play a perfect game. And unfortunately, I’ve found, when you lose, you definitely remember the plays that you could have had back. But for the most part, I thought as a team, especially offensively, we were pretty composed. You know, we moved the ball efficiently. Jalen Hurts played out of his mind.
DUBNER: What’s the relationship between a center and a quarterback? I mean, is it preternaturally close, or are you just another lineman essentially?
KELCE: No, it’s much different. The center and quarterback have to be in sync and have to be on the same page. You know, I think that each quarterback is different, just as each center is different, and the way that manifests is never going to be the same. You know, Nick Foles is different than Carson Wentz was, and Carson Wentz is different than Jalen Hurts is, and all of those guys are different than Michael Vick was. You’re trying to get to a place where you guys are on the same page. You understand the way he’s thinking. He understands the way you’re thinking.
DUBNER: Do you spend a lot of time with him trying to just kind of establish communication at least, and so on?
KELCE: Absolutely. You have your own meetings with the guy. You talk a lot outside of meetings whether it’s on the field or off the field about, you know, “I think we should maybe do this on this play, if this is the situation.” Or, “We should point the guy into the boundary on this play because we have a good answer to the field. And I’m okay if we’re hot over there.” I think all of these things are getting ironed out if you have a good relationship. When it’s a new relationship, obviously, you need to talk more. And you need to get on the same page and understand how each other think.
DUBNER: Let me go back to something you mentioned earlier. When you’re talking about the neighborhood you grew up is kind of a liberal neighborhood. So tell me for a minute about you now. Like I know that within N.F.L. circles, at least, you’re considered a pretty politically — I don’t know if politically active is the right word, politically astute, culturally aware, whatever you want to call it. But just walk me through how you see your platform, I guess. You know, as a football player who has a platform addressing things that are within the culture, whether it’s politics, society, etc.?
KELCE: Hold on. My dog is — let me get my dog out of here before I answer that question. Sorry, Stephen.
DUBNER: No worries. Take your time.
KELCE: Outside Bubba, come on. Let’s go. All right.
DUBNER: What kind of dog do you have?
KELCE: Irish wolfhound. I have two of them back there. They’re fun dogs. They’re enormous. They’re a good time. My wife grew up Irish dancing, so she always wanted one — I had never heard of them until I met my wife, Kylie. And she — the moment we got married — actually, before we got married, I think, we got Winnie. And then we needed one to kind of have a companion.
DUBNER: All right. So getting back to you as a — whatever we want to call you — like, you know, open mic on that for a minute.
KELCE: I kind of do my best to not be too political.
DUBNER: I don’t even mean politics per se. I mean, from what I’ve seen is that you seem to present a kind of pro-human position, if you know what I mean.
KELCE: I would agree with that.
DUBNER: Not a us-and-them, not a fight-or-flight, but something where — I don’t know what it is. I guess, that’s what I’m asking you is — are you driven a little bit by a desire to bring people together, maybe, using sport to bring people together? I don’t mean to give you too much credit, but that’s the impression that I’ve got. I’m just curious about it.
KELCE: No, I think that — I think that that’s very fair. I don’t — you know, some of these things I think, happen just kind of unconsciously in maybe who I am. But I think there’s definitely a desire to be positive, to bring people together. I’m not a fan of — a lot of what I draw on is from things that I like of coaches and players and teammates. And I think that coaches that are more unifying, are more celebratory, are more embracing. If the culture of the team is, “you need to buy into what we’re doing,” that is a frustrating culture and team to be a part of. If the culture is, “it’s our job to get the players to buy in, or it’s our job to make the culture embracing of the players,” that’s a culture I can get behind. And, you know, I think in the world right now, it is very animosity-driven and people want to pit sides and I think that I — certainly I try to see the good in people. I try to see the good in humanity and shed light on that. And I think embrace my teammates and in my city and the values and things that were instilled in me from my father and mother and the area that I grew up in.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this. You’ve been with one team for your whole career. How many seasons now?
KELCE: This is year 13 coming up.
DUBNER: Okay, so even though football is an unusual job — or a pretty uncommon job, at least — it’s a job. And the Eagles are essentially your employer. I mean, they are your employer. It’s a little bit different than most employers, perhaps. I assume you like the culture overall because you’ve had certainly opportunities to leave. Can you talk about your relationship with the organization in a way that a non-professional athlete could relate? Because the world has changed a lot in that regard too. As you well know — you know, your folks were with a company for a long, long, long time. And that just doesn’t happen that much anymore. So in a way, in the modern world, for a relatively young person, you’re sort of an outlier. So talk about your relationship with the organization, pros and cons, and then we can get into this N.F.L.P.A. report card that I want to talk about too.
KELCE: You know, it’s extremely hard to stay with the same organization for an entire career. There’s so many factors that go into that between what you’re worth, whether the team agrees with that assessment, what the dynamics are from a health standpoint and from an age standpoint. And I’ve been very, very lucky to meet a lot of parameters. And it was close a few times to probably not being that way.
DUBNER: Meaning you almost left a couple of times.
KELCE: Well, I think I almost was forced out at least one time I think. I had a rough year in 2016, the year before we played in the Super Bowl, ironically enough.
DUBNER: What was rough about it?
KELCE: Oh, I just didn’t play well at the start of the year.
DUBNER: Were you hurt?
KELCE: No, I just had a few bad games early on. I was out of rhythm. We were able to turn it around. I had a good second half of that season, but a lot of the narrative was that I was — the Eagles wanted to move on from me, and I think they did. But, you know, I was in this realm from a contract standpoint that it was probably too much that anybody else wanted to pay.
DUBNER: You were in a three- or four- or five-year deal at that point?
KELCE: I signed a five-year extension. And this would have been year four of that extension, I think. And the reason I say the contract saved me was that I wasn’t such a high salary that the Eagles weren’t willing to pay it. But it was too high that another team probably wasn’t interested in trading for me.
DUBNER: What was your number at that year? Do you remember?
KELCE: Oh man, I think it was right around six. It might have been a little bit less.
DUBNER: $6 million a year. So what was that like, coming back to the team for your last year of that contract, knowing that the team hadn’t been your biggest supporter necessarily?
KELCE: I did not view it personally, I’ll be honest with you. I knew that I struggled the beginning half of the season. I had an offensive line coach that believed in me, and Jeff Stoutland, very strongly, felt that if I had just used the right technique, I’m going to mitigate the vast majority of these issues. And he ended up proving to be right. We ended up going to the Super Bowl the next year. I had the best season of my career. I made my first All-Pro team, won a world championship, so it was a pretty damn good feeling.
DUBNER: So they’re not going to not bring you back now?
KELCE: Correct. And now they’re getting me on a bargain really, because now everybody’s, “Hey, you still interested in that trade you guys were talking about last year?” But, these are the things that happen throughout a career. You’re going to have ups and downs and bad years. And I think sometimes — I think, you know, not to pat myself on the back, I think I handled it in a really healthy way. I had a great leader in Jeff Stoutland as an offensive line coach who believed in me still. So my self-confidence was still high.
DUBNER: And what’s your relationship like with the upper tier of the organization — with ownership, with the G.M., E.V.P., and so on?
KELCE: As I’ve gotten older and garnered more trust within the organization, and more of a voice, I get asked my opinion more — not that I was ever shy of voicing my opinion before, but now it’s more proactive, I guess, asking of the opinion rather than me just blurting it out.
DUBNER: Can you give an example of where ownership or management may come to you and say, “Hey, we don’t know about this, we don’t feel good about this?”
KELCE: I mean, this is a bad example. Seems like something really small — but we do a bowling trip or some type of team activity every offseason and literally today, we just got back from the bowling alley because they consulted with me and other leaders on the team about, you know, “Do you think this is important?” And I do think it’s important. I think it’s fun to kind of step away from practice and do something outside the confines of a game.
DUBNER: How’d you bowl today by the way?
KELCE: Terrible. It was one of my worst outings. The lanes were slick. They put too much oil on.
DUBNER: Oh, come on. Come on, come on.
KELCE: It wasn’t ideal.
DUBNER: A poor carpenter blames his tools.
KELCE: That’s fair.
DUBNER: Okay, so anyway. But you did it, and that’s something that you talk about with management for instance.
KELCE: Yeah. Another example, probably more of an impact. I’m getting older and they’re looking at having the next center for the next decade. So they’ve drafted a guy with the idea of him maybe replacing me multiple times at this point in my career. And I’ve ended up having great careers with those guys. But, you know, Cam Jurgens was the guy we drafted last year. And they had me actually watch tape and give my assessment on which players I liked out of that draft class. There were a number of really good centers in that draft class.
DUBNER: It’s a little bit weird, though, in that you are being asked to help your employer recruit your eventual replacement, correct?
KELCE: Well, either they’re going to do this on their own, and I’m going to have no involvement. Or I can be a part of this and try and try and have a say. You know, I have seen players fight the process of them drafting guys or bringing free agents in.
DUBNER: When you say fight it — meaning the new guy comes in and you give him a cold shoulder, you don’t help him out?
KELCE: Cold shoulder, you don’t really help him. You don’t develop a relationship. You don’t try and help the player improve. And listen, I don’t know that that’s a job of any player. I just think for your own psyche, it’s not good for you. Like, if this guy is better than you, it’s going to happen. And would you rather it be, “Hey, this guy fought it with every tooth and nail?” Or would you rather be like, “Hey, man, like, I had some small part in making that guy get as good as he could be as fast as he did.” And I’ve seen guys fight that. And I think it actually does make those players play worse. I think it starts to mess with their head. And I don’t think it’s a healthy room. Like, you want a room in the N.F.L. that everybody feels like they’re in it, and valued. You don’t want to be in a room where like you not — you’re holding back from a guy. Because that guy is going to feel that. He’s going to be like, “Man, that guy doesn’t really care about me or he doesn’t like me or whatever.” You want all of these individuals in your room to be adding to the conversation. That’s a big part, in my opinion, about getting better as a unit and a player is all of these conversations that happen throughout the week, that happen in the preparation, and the offseason, at the bar. Like all of this makes a difference, I firmly believe, in the outcome.
DUBNER: So if you’ve got someone on your team that you feel hasn’t quite got to that level yet of being that kind of teammate, are you now the sort of guy, veteran, who will go — maybe it’s your Q.B. — and you say to him, “Listen, you’re doing an amazing job, but if you could also reach out a little bit more as a human, as a teammate, it’ll be better.” Do you do that?
KELCE: I do that now for sure, if I see it. I have not always been that position and, you know, being older now, I view more strongly on that now. I wish I would have had this viewpoint in other parts of my career and voiced them to other guys that I’ve played with.
DUBNER: You would have done some things differently?
KELCE: Well, I think I want to just voiced things, and maybe in a more direct way. Sometimes I voice things in an indirect way because you don’t want to step out of your lane, right? Especially, if it’s a player that’s either older or in a different dynamic, right? So you just kind of say things hoping that they’ll get what you’re saying and it’s in a respectful way. Whereas now, me being the oldest guy, I kind of have the credence to have that conversation with just about anybody if I want to.
DUBNER: I read that you thought about maybe retiring this year. Is that true?
KELCE: I’ve thought about it seriously for a number of years.
DUBNER: Tell me that process.
KELCE: Shocker — playing in the N.F.L. is really hard. And as you get older, it gets harder and harder for a number of reasons. Obviously, the number of injuries and where your body’s at is in a much different place the older you get. Overall energy level — it’s a lot to do a really hard lift, stay focused in meetings, go out there and practice.
DUBNER: And what about family, too? You have three young daughters, correct? How does that factor in?
KELCE: Well, it definitely factors in. And I think back to the thing about energy, you beat me to it, asking about the families — but, you know, you only get so much energy throughout the day. And when you apply so much into the game and into your teammates, when you come home in the middle of a season, even if you get an off day here or there, your kids are going to see a fractured level of what dad really is at 100 percent, right? I am not ignorant of that fact. And I think one of the greatest things anybody in this world can do is be a father. And it’s a job that I take extremely seriously and want to make sure that I’m doing a good job of and that does weigh in on these decisions.
DUBNER: Are you a different dad during the season then?
KELCE: Yeah, well, I have less time. I have less energy. I —
DUBNER: Do you think it affects you, you know, whatever, emotionally?
KELCE: Yeah, there’s times where I’ll be on a season, and my wife’s extremely good about, with the Facetime and everything, but it’s not the same. And, you know, you see videos or pictures and things and you definitely on a road trip or in the middle of the season are wondering to yourself, “Am I doing the right thing right now? Am I missing out on meaningful moments that my girls are not going to remember as their dad being there for?” So, yes, I think it’s, it’s much different. Especially, when I’m doing other things now too, because I’ve thought I was going to retire, so I’ve taken on more activities in anticipation of retiring.
DUBNER: Like podcasting?
KELCE: Like a podcast. Like other business ventures —
DUBNER: What other business ventures do you work on?
KELCE: I’ve been involved with real estate in Cleveland for a number of years. I want to get involved with that in Philadelphia now. I made a Christmas album this past year with our offensive linemen and a bunch of musical artists. And — it’s all awesome, but all of this is time and, my wife jokingly said, when I was thinking about retiring, she was like, “I think you should probably just play another year because at least I know what the N.F.L. schedule is.”
DUBNER: Did losing a Super Bowl add to your wanting to come back or subtract to wanting to come back?
KELCE: Unequivocally added to it — and I don’t think it should have. It’s so hard to get there, and there’s so many things that need to happen right for that to happen. I mean, right after the game, I wanted to play another season, and I had to really step away and figure out, you know, is this the right thing? Is this the right thing for your body? Is it the right thing for the family? And can you do it? My biggest thing is, I want to do it the way it needs to be done. Being who you are in the meeting room, on the field, around your teammates, investing in that — as well as practicing hard, as well as lifting weights. Whether it’s Jeff Stoutland saying, I remember he’s said this to me for three years now, but, you know, “Just stop playing when you don’t want to play football anymore.” And I’m like, you know, Stout, “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I think I’m always going to want to play football.” And he said, “No, Jason, there’s going to be one day that you’re going to wake up, and you’re going to realize you do not want to do this anymore.” And it’s — it’s going to happen, trust me. And my wife has pretty much said the same thing.
DUBNER: So you’re 35 now, is that right?
KELCE: 35. Yeah.
DUBNER: So 35 years in, in a pro-football player’s body is the equivalent of what?
KELCE: A lot of car wrecks. At this point I get M.R.I.’s on all of my major joints after every year to see where they’re at and how much worse they’ve gotten. And you know, the guys reading the reports are like, “Yeah, man, your shoulders look great. Your knees are in really good shape.” And I’m like, “Like, are they in good shape for a 13-year football player? Or are they in shape for like a normal 35-year-old?” And they go, “Oh yeah, for a normal 35-year-old, you would look terrible. But the fact that you play football, these are really good looking knees. So —”
DUBNER: Have you had major surgeries, or no?
KELCE: I’ve had a few. I’ve had two on my right knee. A.C.L., M.C.L. — which was actually the same injury. They used to do two separate surgeries on that; now they just do it with one. I’ve had an ankle clean-out on my left ankle. I’ve had bilateral sports hernia on my gut. I’ve had this tendon removed in this finger.
DUBNER: When you’re getting your screening at the end of the season, that’s to check in, I assume, but also to establish a baseline so you can see for later — or is it really just to see what kind of shape you’re in right now?
KELCE: Part of it is to see what kind of shape I’m in right now. Part of it is to — I don’t know, I’m just curious to see what’s happening on an annual basis, how things are deteriorating, staying the same in some situations. Nothing is getting better unfortunately, it’s all either the same or worse.
DUBNER: Now, what about your head? Do you get scanned? Are you concerned about brain injuries, C.T.E., and so on?
KELCE: Well, I mean, it’s obviously something that I think every player is aware of now. I don’t know that “concerned” is the right word. I think it’s something that I think will eat you alive if you’re concerned about it. I’m aware of it. And I try to think of it in terms of what can I do to mitigate potentially the ramifications of that. I have not been scanned yet, because there’s a few scans out there that I’m optimistic about that I think I will get either this year or next year. But as of right now, none of them have that many studies around them. So they’re pretty — unfortunately, there’s no clear way to tell whether somebody has C.T.E. while they’re alive. Right now, the major way that they know how to do it is to cut the head open, and I don’t plan on doing that for hopefully a long time.
DUBNER: Do you know anybody who died of C.T.E.? Did you know any of those older players?
KELCE: Not personally — I know a fullback that played with the Eagles and the Patriots that ended up getting Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it came out after that he had C.T.E. Out of all the brains they have cut open of former N.F.L. players, almost every player, maybe every player, has had C.T.E. So one, that’s frightening, obviously, on some degree. But two, there’s also a number of N.F.L. players that live long, healthy lives without symptoms later in life. And I would love for the N.F.L. and N.F.L.P.A. to get behind an initiative that pushed for those players to donate their brains, because unfortunately, I think, most of the players that donate their brains end up being players with symptoms. And I have a sneaky suspicion that there’s a lot of people walking around with C.T.E. that have minimal symptoms and that there are lifestyle mitigations —
DUBNER: What do you mean by lifestyle mitigations?
KELCE: Proper sleep, exercising, proper nutrition. I think that all of those things are going to end up playing a role into the severity at which this affects your life. If you look at a lot of the symptoms associated with C.T.E., there’s similar symptoms as other age-related cognitive diseases, whether it’s tau protein buildups, web entanglements. I think as we’re finding out, you know, exercise, sleep, proper nutrition — a lot of these things mitigate all of these other cognitive declines.
DUBNER: And are you pretty — you’re pretty good at that stuff, or not so good?
KELCE: I think I’m really good. I think I’m really good with sleep. I don’t drink as much as I used to, even though I still enjoy one every once in a while.
My conversation with Jason Kelce, center for the Philadelphia Eagles, continues after the break. I’m Stephen Dubner, this is Freakonomics Radio, and we’ll be right back.
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DUBNER: Let me take you back to the beginning of your career. On your show, you talked to Howie Roseman, your E.V.P./G.M. of the Eagles. And he admitted that there was some reluctance to draft you because of behavioral concerns. He said, “I do remember in the draft room, scouts were going, ‘I’m just telling you, he might fight half the team and he really likes to party’.” How right were those scouts?
KELCE: Well, I think the anger portion has always been misunderstood. The party was spot on. That’s something both my brother and I had an affinity of, especially in my younger years. You know, I — I enjoyed having a good time and celebrating life. My anger — I’ve always been a kid that’s been prone to outbursts or temper tantrums. But almost all of them happened in the confines of being on the field, one; and then two, they’re always with people that I love and respect. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten that upset to want to fight a random person. It’s almost always comes at a level of, “I feel like I’m being disrespected by somebody that I have respect for, and why is this not being reciprocated” type of feeling. And what happens is I don’t address that. I’ve gotten better at it because now I just address it on the front end as opposed to —
DUBNER: How do you do that?
KELCE: Well, you go talk to the person. You tell them how you felt and you know, or you say it in maybe a less direct way. But you get it out of your system in a much more appropriate manner. It still happens from time to time. I’m a very emotional person, always have been. But I’ve definitely gotten much, much better at controlling that.
DUBNER: All the elements of being a professional football player that you’re talking about, I think listeners will really get a good window into what the job is like, even though most of us are not physically capable of doing it. And we only watch the output, right? We watch on Sunday. We don’t see what happens those many, many, many other hours. But you’re now talking about all those other hours and all the stuff that goes into it: the meetings, the lifting, the practice. When it comes to all that stuff, the actual job, everything outside of the performance on the field, how much does the workplace environment matter? We’re talking about the N.F.L.P.A. report card here. And, as an outsider, I can look at it and say, “Oh, wow, I could imagine how being on a team with really low grades could be terrible and it could result in bad play.” On the other hand, there seems to be no correlation between good marks here and good teams. In fact, quite the opposite. A lot of the teams that are really good are ranked pretty low. So can you just get into that a little bit? How much do you care? How much does it matter? Maybe not just you, but other people as well?
KELCE: Well, in terms of a lot of the things that were voted on for this survey, I think that players do care. I think that they want to be in a workplace and in an environment that is, one, the best available. But also, two, something that is enjoyable and is good for their family and facilitates a healthy environment to get better in. To me, the most important things are the staff questions. You know, is the staff good? Do they want to help the players improve? But, I mean, some of the people that were rated poorly in that, are some of the best and highly regarded people in their fields.
DUBNER: So how do you how do you account for that then, just personal differences?
KELCE: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s personal differences. Some of it is, you know, if a guy has been around for a very long time, there’s a chance that he is more old-school and less inclined towards maybe new modalities and things that college kids are coming in with. What the N.F.L. deals with a little bit is, you know, every major college has better facilities than the N.F.L. does. The universities use these as recruiting tools, and they have very large pockets to build these enormous facilities. And the N.F.L. just is behind that for the most part, outside of maybe a couple — you know, I was at the Miami Dolphins training facilities last year and it’s pretty state of the art.
DUBNER: Why were you there?
KELCE: We were doing training camp there. So for me another reason this is a little bit more difficult for me is I haven’t played anywhere else, but you do hear through the grapevine and guys that have been other places, the vast majority of N.F.L. players have played for multiple teams, so you get a frame of reference as to, you know, where the Eagles are and where the different staff members are in the eyes of the players.
DUBNER: So the Eagles came out kind of middle of the pack. I’m curious what you thought of that result. And I’m also curious to know, I assume you filled out the survey yourself — maybe you didn’t?
KELCE: No, I did.
DUBNER: Would you say that the overall team results for the Eagles reflect your views closely or not so much?
KELCE: I thought it was spot on. I’d be curious to see what the standard deviation on each one of these was because when I saw the results, it was almost to the T.
DUBNER: You felt like you were looking at your answers.
KELCE: Yeah. Yeah. But I know that a lot of guys filled it out.
DUBNER: All right, so I’m glad to hear you say that, because I do want to ask you about something that you mentioned earlier, which is the discrepancy between staff and facilities. So for the Eagles, I’m looking at your report card. Strength coaches: A+. Training staff: A+. But training room: C-. Locker room: C+. So explain how that — why there’s such a split there. Is it just that you want to be kind to people? I mean, it was an anonymous survey. So what is it that makes you grade the people well but the facilities poorly?
KELCE: Well, I think that, one, we were one of the least-injured teams in the N.F.L. last year. And the two staffs and rooms that control that the most are the strength department and the training department. I’ve been around a lot of different staff members at this point. I think that both of those rooms are led really well. They do forward, innovative things — they’re open to discussing things with the players.
DUBNER: Give me an example, if you don’t mind, of the forward, innovative things?
KELCE: So there’s a whole discrepancy right now in the N.F.L. of do you practice on Wednesdays or — how many hard days in a row? The strength staff is very involved with the training staff at, one, trying to help players improve and get better, but also to mitigate injuries. And, you know, training camp used to be two-a-days, hard every single day, three-hour practices.
DUBNER: Pads and helmets.
KELCE: That’s right. And now it is much more of a tiered system where one day is a yellow day. And that goes into, one, the intensity of practice but also the length at which you’re out there. Green is a, “Hey, we’re getting geared up. This is going to be a barn-burner.” But it’s done in a calculated way that the coaches understand, that the players understand, and that is done in, scientifically, what is the optimal way for a player to, one, stay healthy, but also improve.
DUBNER: And just so I’m clear, those changes were the result, I assume, of N.F.L.P.A., the players union, requests and negotiations over the years, not from the teams, but tell me if I’m wrong there.
KELCE: I would say you’re wrong. The two-a-days for sure was a big negotiating factor by the P.A., before I got into the league. But there is a very large gray area in terms of how long practices are. They can’t be over a certain amount of time on the field. But we are, quite frankly, way underneath that threshold. But I think I would be very much remiss if I didn’t give credit to the Eagles organization — our strength staff and our training staff — at going beyond what the collective N.F.L. mindset is on that.
DUBNER: Define what people mean when they say that a particular head coach is a “player’s coach.” And I want to know the upsides and potentially the downsides of that, too.
KELCE: One, it can mean that they’re too soft on players, which is obviously not what you want in a head coach. But I actually think, the more I think a head coach is that people refer to as a “players coach,” is a coach who leads by embracing individuals and by encouraging them to be themselves, by encouraging them to take ownership, by valuing them as individuals. I think that that’s ultimately what most coaches that I would call “player’s coaches” being. The onus is on the team to embrace the players, not the other way around, which is what I would say maybe is the more old-school mentality or militaristic mentality of, “Hey, you guys got to buy into everything we’re doing because this is the way it has to be done.” And I think there’s strengths and negatives to both of those. And you don’t want to probably too far in either of those directions. But, in general, that’s what in my mind a players’ coach is.
DUBNER: Your team got an A in food service and nutrition.
KELCE: Let me tell you. It’s so good, Stephen.
DUBNER: Why have you not invited me for lunch yet?
KELCE: Come on over.
DUBNER: All right.
KELCE: The Eagles, to their credit, have taken that feedback from players since I’ve been there. It is remarkable how much the cafeteria has changed, for the better. In one, the quality of food that’s there. And two, the wide range of what you can get.
DUBNER: During the season, are there days where you eat three meals a day at the facility or no?
KELCE: Yes, most Wednesdays and Thursdays, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner there.
DUBNER: Okay, so walk me through those meals. I’m not asking you to name everything you eat, but give me a typical breakfast, typical lunch, typical dinner.
KELCE: My breakfast is usually if not the exact same, one item different. And it used to be Chef Tim — shoutout to Chef Tim, he’s no longer with the Eagles. But I usually go in, I get three eggs over easy with three sausage links and breakfast potatoes. And then I go get a bagel with cream cheese on it and honey, and then a cup of blueberries.
DUBNER: Can I just say, I’ve never tried cream cheese with honey. It sounds good.
KELCE: So one of our strength coaches did that on an English muffin. It’s very good on English muffin as well. But yeah, highly recommend it.
DUBNER: Is the honey meant to be somewhat medicinal, or just you like it?
KELCE: I think it’s, one, for taste but also, two, I think it’s a better sweetener than some of your other alternatives, but that’s up for debate. Lunch — so we have a few stations. We have a station right when you come in, which is really for your clean eating. It’s going to be some type of rice or grain, maybe a noodle, and some veggies that have been cooked. And then to the left of that, there’s going to be a pretty clean, low-fat-added type of meat? And then, the more you go left, you’ll get a little bit of fried stuff, right? So if you’re in the mood for some french fries or like a sausage sandwich hoagie. And then if you go even left of that, this probably my favorite station, they’ve gone to a, like, regional dish. A lot of times in season it’s based on a player’s favorite food or where they’re from.
DUBNER: Yeah, give me a for-instance.
KELCE: Well, for me I went to Thailand one year, so I had them do panang curry with naan bread. Just absolutely one of my favorite dishes. Another day it might be — you know, I’m trying to think of who in particular — I think it was either Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham, was smothered pork chops.
DUBNER: Now wait, let me just be clear, though, we’re still on lunch, right? Were you moving off of lunch or are you staying with lunch?
KELCE: So — and I guess I should say that might be dinner, so—
DUBNER: Okay. Because I was going to say, if you’re eating smothered pork chops for lunch, I don’t know what afternoon is like.
KELCE: I think that station is still like a theme of the day station for lunch. And I think the dinner one is the player one.
DUBNER: Okay. So I can see why that gets an A. Team travel for the Eagles was ranked low — a D. You would agree with that assessment?
KELCE: That might have been lower than what I ranked it. But I did not rank it high. If I was any higher, it was a C.
DUBNER: I’m reading here, it says only half of the players feel they have enough room to spread out. I guess that’s on the plane. You don’t have roommates in a hotel, at least, which some teams do, right? Is that correct?
KELCE: It’s correct. Yep.
DUBNER: But you’re one of only seven teams that don’t offer first class seats to their players.
KELCE: And I did not know that before this study. When Chip Kelly was the head coach — obviously everybody can’t sit in first class — but he did allow starters and players who are extremely large to sit in the first-class seats instead of the coaches. It’s a nice perk. Anybody who has sat first-class knows that those seats are pretty nice. And other teams also have, I think, private planes that have more space for the guys that are in the back. Like, we have a player, Jordan Mailata, who’s north of 6’6’’ and 400 pounds, almost. He’s going to struggle to fit any situation in the back of the plane.
DUBNER: What’s your plane? It’s a charter from —
KELCE: It’s a charter — man. I’m trying to remember —
DUBNER: Is it American? Philly is a hub for American or —
KELCE: So Philly is definitely an American Airlines hub. And I’m trying to remember — there’s always the little video at the start with the lady who’s walking and her heels are clicking. And I know the exact thing I’m trying to remember it — for — it’s not — is it Del — no, it’s not Delta. I think it’s American Airlines. I think it is.
DUBNER: It’s good to know you watch the safety video, though.
KELCE: Well, you got to be prepared. Yeah, I’ve seen it a few times.
DUBNER: Okay, so treatment of families. The Eagles did okay: B-minus. Tell me about that one.
KELCE: We have a family room for games that oftentimes is just a little small. And then I think another part of that is there’s not really a big congregating area for families and players after the game that’s away from fans.
DUBNER: Do you think this report card will lead to any change?
KELCE: I do. It’s already led to change. So we talked about the training-room facilities. They installed a much larger cold pool in the actual training room. We used to have two above-ground pools out back, which I always — you know, “We’re a billion-organization with above ground pools. I think we can maybe do better than this.”
DUBNER: Aboveground, outdoors?
DUBNER: Like, in the winter?
KELCE: Well, so they would have to shut them down in the winter and that was a big issue with it. And there is a big cold pool and hot — and I guess it wasn’t really that hot, but it was hot enough — so they’ve already made corrections on that. I believe they’re addressing some of the family issues at games. The weight room is adding another tier that’s going to add more footprint for more bikes and other workout equipment.
DUBNER: What about travel? Do you know if that’s going to change at all this year?
KELCE: So I did talk to somebody about that. You know, “Why don’t the Eagles just invest in a plane already? It’s more than a valuable enough organization.” And their claim was that there’s no place to store it close to Philadelphia.
DUBNER: They can put it where they had the outdoor pools.
KELCE: How about that? So I don’t know that that’s going to change. And I don’t know that the coaches and front office are going to be willing to give up their first-class seats. So we might be stuck still with only an empty row, which is, I mean, all things considered not the worst thing in the world.
DUBNER: I guess what I’m really asking is: how much do you think this report card is going to matter? Short-term, let’s say, this season, and then long-term, which would include teams responding to it in a meaningful way?
KELCE: I do think teams are going to respond to it. I think the Eagles are already responding to it. Just like players are competitive, I think owners are competitive. And I think that owners, or certainly a good portion of owners, are not going to like seeing their organization viewed in a negative light. And I think that they’re going to try and correct these things.
DUBNER: Were you surprised, though, that there is what looks like a negative correlation between the report card and wins, Super Bowl wins especially? Were you surprised at that? I’ll give you the top five, are the Vikings, the Dolphins, the Raiders, the Texans, and the Cowboys. Bottom five are — well, the Commanders are kind of an outlier — Cardinals, Chargers, Chiefs, Jags, Bengals, Pats are 24. So, you know, it’s not perfect by any stretch. But I guess seeing the Chiefs so low is maybe the big surprise.
KELCE: The Chiefs is the biggest surprise.
DUBNER: And the Bengals, but I mean the Bengals have only really been good for the last few years.
KELCE: So the Bengals are notorious for being — and I love Cincinnati, I went to school there — they are notorious for being one of the cheapest organizations. They are still good at evaluating talent. And they have an incredible quarterback in Joe Burrow that helps you win games now, as well as an outstanding defense. I think if you look at the correlation of that, what you see is the teams that are at the high end are teams that have all recently revamped their infrastructure. The teams that are at the low end of that are teams that have not invested in new infrastructure. And I think that the new infrastructure probably is not going to make as big of a difference in wins and losses as having good players. But it can make somewhat of a difference for players. It can also make a difference for sponsors and bottom line of business, making money. I’m sure somebody’s been crunching numbers on that portion of it. And it also makes a difference for other workers that are in those buildings. And like we just said, owners are competitive, man. They want to have the best.
DUBNER: And, again, from the outside, just as a fan, you think of these multi-billion dollar firms paying their employees — in some cases, many, many millions of dollars, but even the lowest-paid are making a lot more than the average employee — but then cheaping out on those infrastructure or facility things. Can you explain that? It’s just surprising to me.
KELCE: I think that, one, a lot of the owners that have — I guess, new age of owners, or the real estate moguls or people that have made money outside of, I guess, “inheriting a team” might not be the right choice word there —
DUBNER: Well, yeah.
KELCE: But I think that all of them understand the value of investment. And they’ve built businesses around doing all of that. I think the family-run businesses are used to more of the old-school way of the way the N.F.L. was. You know, the Browns are a legacy of Paul Brown, one of the most heralded coaches of all time in the N.F.L. And they adhere to a particular style of football, a way of doing things from the football end, not necessarily, I think, on the business side of things. I will say there was one point where — we talked about my anger earlier, and we were coming back on a short flight and they didn’t like turn the T.V.s on on the back of the seats. And I remember just flipping out, “We’re a billion-organization and we can’t even get free movies on these flights? Like what’s going on here, guys?”
DUBNER: Who’d you say that to?
KELCE: I said that to one of the stewardesses, and then one of the guys that kind of runs everything for logistics with the team came back and he’s like, “All right, we’re going to turn the T.V.’s on Jason.” So we got them going.
DUBNER: Now, what about being charged for food — in Arizona, let’s say. Did that surprise you?
KELCE: It didn’t. That’s the way it was in Philly, my first few years in the off-season at least. We went to Arizona, and we used the Arizona Cardinals facilities. And I can say firsthand, they are not investing in this place. The weight room had — I’m not kidding you, the mats of the weight room were, like, I don’t know if they had water moisture that was getting in there, but like the rubber mat that was on top of the concrete floor was peeling up on the corners of it. So you’re, like, walking on an uneven surface the whole time. I was like, how are people not just getting hurt in here? Outside of their cold tub and hot tub in their training room, which was pretty spacious — it was eye-openingly bad in my opinion.
DUBNER: For I would say, probably, 99.8 percent of people listening to this, they never have and never will play in the N.F.L. They probably have a little bit better sense now of what the job is like on a day-to-day basis, thanks to you. But assuming they’re going to continue to not play in the N.F.L. — but they are thinking about, you know, I have a job, I have a boss, I have a place where I go, I have perks and intangibles, or maybe there are things that I want. What do you think is the biggest takeaway that the rest of us can learn from this report card and survey?
KELCE: I think unequivocally that more unions should be doing this, one. I think that Jeffrey Lurie is a very open owner, and a guy who really wants player feedback. It’s different when one person or somebody comes to you with an anecdote or a one-off, as opposed to a literal survey of your entire workforce saying this is what we think of the place that you have us operate in. For C.E.O.s and owners, I think that seeing it this way, an unbiased view of it, gives you a much more realistic idea of what your workplace environment is. So I would want this information. And as a worker, I would want my boss to know this, but to also not be punished if I tell him it to his face. So I’m a big fan of this survey. I think that it will lead to a lot of change in some of these N.F.L. organizations, especially if it’s done on an annual basis. I see no reason why other fields or places of business would not follow suit and try to make changes as well. Nobody wants to be known as the cheapskate. Before, when it was rumored you were the cheapskate, it was harder to prove. Now there’s data.
DUBNER: I love it. I love it. Listen, I’m glad for my sake you didn’t retire because it’ll be really fun to watch you play this season now that we’ve had this conversation. But I just want to wish you all the best with your health and your family and, of course, your job performance and all that. So it was really a pleasure.
KELCE: Awesome. Stephen, it’s been a blast.
That, again, was Jason Kelce, a future Hall of Fame center with the Philadelphia Eagles. On November 20th, his team plays the Kansas City Chiefs, with their future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce. The podcast they make together is called New Heights. It’s fun, you should check it out, even if you don’t like football — maybe especially if you don’t like football.
We will be back soon with a regular episode of Freakonomics Radio. Until then, take care of yourself and, if you can, someone else too. And remember: if you want to hear more of this kind of conversation, you should become a member of Freakonomics Radio Plus. You’ll get a bonus episode every week, and you can listen to all our shows without ads. To sign up for Freakonomics Radio Plus, visit the Freakonomics Radio show page on Apple Podcasts, or go to freakonomics.com/plus.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.
- Jason Kelce, center for the Philadelphia Eagles.
- “When Is a Superstar Just Another Employee?” by Freakonomics Radio (2023).
- “How Does Playing Football Affect Your Health?” by Freakonomics, M.D. (2023).
- “Why Does the Most Monotonous Job in the World Pay $1 Million?” by Freakonomics Radio (2022).
- “‘How Much Brain Damage Do I Have?’” by Freakonomics Radio (2017).