On Sunday, Sept. 16, Buffalo Bills cornerback Vontae Davis retired. It became national news immediately. It became national news because of a flaw in the way we understand productivity. It became national news because of a contemporary obsession with ceaseless activity. It became national news because NFL players are supposed to be manipulatable commodities. It became national news because Vontae Davis undermined how laborers in a market economy are supposed to behave.
Davis, a 30-year-old cornerback, was beginning his 10th season in the most physically grueling league in the world. He had made two Pro Bowls and amassed over $35 million in nine-plus NFL seasons. In capitalist terms, Davis was a useful commodity. He helped stuff the coffers of the owners whose teams he played for, and he got a nice cut of the profits (thanks, in part, to the fact that professional sports are one of the few industries left in the United States with reasonably strong unions).
Davis retired at halftime of the Bills’ second regular season game. More precisely, Davis decided to retire with 47 seconds left to play in the first half, with the Bills trailing 28-6. He went back to the locker room at halftime. He never came back out onto the field. He never completed the last game of his career. In a word, Davis quit.
Responses ranged from shock to furor. Davis’ teammate Lorenzo Alexander ardently criticized the cornerback’s decision: “I never have seen that … Never seen it ever. It’s just completely disrespectful.” Later, Alexander dismissed further questions. “I don’t have anything to say about Vontae. I’m going to give him a little bit more respect than he showed us today, as far as quitting on us in the middle of a game” (ABC News, “Bills’ Vontae Davis abruptly retires from football at halftime vs. Chargers,” 09.16.2018).
Damien Woody, a two-time Super Bowl champion who now serves as a football analyst for ESPN, went on First Take, the network’s most popular talk show, and called what Davis did a “punk move.” When asked how he would react if he were one of Davis’ teammates, Woody was clear: “I would literally want to fight this cat.”
It was not just teammates and former players who spoke out against Davis. Fans have called his actions, among other things, “akin to soldiers leaving their platoon mates to die in the middle of a battle” (The Undefeated, “Vontae Davis, in his own words,” 09.19.2018). Davis has heard these accusations. He defends his actions. His defense relies on the answer to a simple, profound question: “Do I want to keep sacrificing? … I do not because the season is long, and it’s more important for me and my family to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late” (Twitter, NFL, 09.16.2018).
The NFL, like almost any other profit-driven organization, is fairly explicit in its commodification of labor. When a player opts out of a contract with one team, he hits the market. It is thus assumed that players should behave as tools of a larger machine of entertainment production.
According to economic historian Karl Polanyi, writing in 1944, “Market economy implies a self-regulating system of markets; in slightly more technical terms, it is an economy directed by market prices and nothing but market prices” [emphasis added] (Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 1944). If NFL players are, in the eyes of the league, mere commodities, then in order for this commodity to properly function in a market, it must not factor in anything but the bottom line. That bottom line is defined by an ability to produce. The Buffalo Bills signed Davis to a twoyear contract because they believed that his labor power could be productive for them for two years. What the Bills did not factor in was the fact that Davis understood himself as more than a commodity. Commodities are not supposed to think about whether or not they are going to “limp away too late.” Davis did. Davis quitting is thus an act of empowerment because market economies persist, as Polanyi suggested, upon the myth that labor can be commodified. At halftime of the Bills vs. Chargers game, Davis momentarily decommodified himself. He shattered the myth that undergirds every NFL contract.
Sure, his teammates could have legitimate qualms. There’s something to be said for loyalty. There’s something to be said for facing daunting challenges alongside a team. There’s something to be said for, in NFL terms, brotherhood. But football—at least at the professional and collegiate level—sits within a web of oppressive practices. Who was Davis serving when he played through injuries earlier in his career? The answer, as any deconstruction of what it means to participate in a largely unfettered market economy shows us, is more complex than the platitudes that govern the public discussion of what it means to be an NFL player.
There are plenty of examples of people who used a “warrior’s mentality” to further horrific causes. A little self-reflection like the kind that Davis has shown in the days following his retirement may bring us closer to our actual purpose as humans, which is not necessarily to produce. Sometimes it’s about family. Sometimes it’s about health. Sometimes it’s about being able to remember your own name when you turn 60.
In an interview for The Undefeated, Davis spoke vulnerably to player-turned-writer Dominique Foxworth: “Leaving was therapeutic, bro. I left everything the league wanted me to be, playing for my teammates while injured, the gladiator mentality, it all just popped. And when it popped, I just wanted to leave it all behind. So that’s why I don’t care what people say. That experience was personal and not meant for anyone else to understand. It was me cold turkey leaving behind an identity that I carried with me for so long” (The Undefeated, “Vontae Davis, in his own words,” 09.19.2018).
Vontae Davis is my hero because he quit. Maybe he should be yours, too.