NFL has retirement problem, but you can’t blame players

Andrew Luck, who was set to become one of the NFL’s defining faces for the forseeable future, retired before the season in a shock announcement. As the long-term health issues caused by football become more apparent, other players are likely to follow his example.Courtesy keithallison via Flickr

When Andrew Luck retired before the start of the 2019 NFL season, he joined a list of many athletes who have retired before their age and recent athletic performance might indicate. Luck’s retirement took the NFL by surprise and drew a lot of criticism from fans over the situation in which he left the Indianapolis Colts. However, his decision makes sense in the modern environment of the NFL.

Andrew Luck was selected first overall by the Colts in the 2012 NFL draft out of Stanford, and quickly proved that he was a worthy successor to the legendary Peyton Manning. However, while Luck succeeded on the field through every game in his first three seasons, it took a toll on his body. Luck missed half of the 2015 season with a shoulder injury, and in 2017 a torn labrum needed season-ending surgery, leaving the Colts without their star quarterback. However, after a 1-5 start to the 2018 season, the Colts went on a run under outstanding play from Luck, making the playoffs and winning the wild card game. The effort earned Luck the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year award, and the Colts looked set to make another playoff run in 2019, this time with a more refined and playoff-experienced team. That is, until Luck decided to retire, once again leaving the Colts without a quarterback.

Luck is only 30 years old, nowhere near retirement age for most of today’s modern quarterbacks, as players like Drew Brees and Tom Brady have continued to play well into their 30s. Rob Gronkowski, another 30-year-old player, retired this year. Gronk has been on the receiving end of injuries through his entire career, thanks to his spectacularly physical style of play and the nature of the position. However, were it something he still desired, there is no doubt Gronk could still be productive in the NFL. Retiring early has become a growing trend ever since Calvin Johnson retired in 2016, also at the age of 30, with four years left on his contract and a full skillset still at his disposal. So why are players leaving the game they love earlier than ever before? The answer is in the nature of football.

Football is a violent sport. The violence fuels its appeal for many fans, as they marvel at the feats of speed and strength that players display every time they evade a tackle or make a big hit. To eliminate the brutal physicality of the game would be to eliminate the challenge that inherently creates the spectacle of America’s most-watched sport. But this brutality comes with consequences. Growing numbers of retired players are speaking out against the NFL for turning a blind eye to the medical issues players experience later in life caused by repeatedly bashing heads for a living. As a result, the NFL has altered rules and cracked down on big collisions, especially for quarterbacks, but the risk of traumatic injuries still exists.

As an architectural design major at Stanford, Luck is unquestionably intelligent. He understandably values his continued mental agency as much as anyone, and sees the bigger picture in his life beyond next week’s game.

Luck has also now been in the league long enough to accumulate enough wealth to live out the rest of his days in comfort.

Throughout his eight seasons in the league, Luck earned a whopping $109,107,998 (Spotrac, “Andrew Luck cash earnings,” 2019). He likely realized that with every check he earned, the risks he took every time he stepped on the field lost more of their immediate life-changing financial impact. Luck has also repeatedly cited the mental wear and tear of the process of rehabilitation after an injury, and his desire to avoid going through the process again. There is only so much beating the body can take before it begins to permanently degrade, and it is up to every player to determine the point at which that degradation is no longer worth it.

Not every player wants to retire. Jason Witten, a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys, retired after the 2017 season to join his former quarterback Tony Romo in the commentators’ booth, before missing the game so much he came back for the 2019 season. Brett Favre famously came out of retirement multiple times, unable to quell that burning passion he had for the game he had always played.

These discrepancies in player sentiments often confuse fans, and understandably lead them to criticize their team’s players who hang it up early, questioning those players’ loyalty to their team and the game they are supposed to love above all else. The NFL should obviously take all steps necessary to make it as safe as possible for the players. After all, it is never good for the product when star players are leaving the field or people are getting hurt. However, until the NFL is flag football, there will never be a way to completely ensure the safety of players. In the meantime, some players will choose to value their future over the present, and we cannot fault them for that.

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