Andrew Luck Shocks The Football World: What Comes Next

Matthew Rago, Sports Editor

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Former No. 1 overall draft pick and four-time Pro Bowler Andrew Luck staggered the football community when he abruptly announced his retirement last week at the prime age of 29. Luck, enduring a harrowing string of injuries that included a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, a lacerated kidney, torn cartilage in two ribs and a partially torn abdomen, joined a recent trend of NFL players prioritizing their mental and physical health over their NFL careers.   

The announcement set social media ablaze, laying the foundation for a heated debate centered around whether Luck lacked the mental fortitude to endure the rigors of the NFL season. Fox Sports1’s Doug Gottlieb drew the ire of Luck’s peers and fans alike when he tweeted that “retiring because rehabbing is too hard is the most millennial thing ever,” prompting legends such as Troy Aikman and Bo Jackson to race to Luck’s defense. However, once the initial shock of the retirement diminishes, fans of the NFL might notice a troubling pattern of early and sudden retirements from players in their prime. So what comes next?

The Indianapolis Colts are left carrying the largest burden in the immediate aftermath Luck’s retirement. Barring a twelfth hour free agent signing, fourth year quarterback Jacoby Brissett, a former New England Patriots third round draft pick and the favorite to secure the role of backup behind Andrew Luck in the preseason, will be promoted to starting quarterback for week one of the NFL season. Despite his reputation as a career backup, Jacoby Brissett has started 17 games over three seasons between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots. Brissett’s best season was in 2017, when he led the Colts to a 4-11 record while throwing for thirteen touchdowns, seven interceptions, and 3,098 yards.  The Colts will rely on Brissett to utilize his experience as a starting quarterback to steer a team that suddenly finds itself in a state of disarray.

The heavier question, however, is what Luck’s retirement means for the NFL.  The current crop of NFL players have resoundingly dismissed the notion that toughness takes precedence over long-term health. This isn’t a novel concept, of course; standout players such as Barry Sanders and Jim Brown hung up their cleats in the primes of their respective careers. However, premature retirements used to happen once, maybe twice, every decade. What began as a few scattered anomalies has since evolved into a full-fledged pattern. Top-tier talent, some in the midst of Hall of Fame caliber careers, have begun to abandon the NFL in droves. When Chris Borland, the promising 49ers linebacker who finished third in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting behind only Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald (arguably the two best defensive players in the NFL today), opted for retirement after a single NFL season in 2014, analysts reacted with mild bemusement. While there wasn’t collective derision over the decision, many weren’t prepared to entertain the idea that such a decision might become more recurrent. However, Borland’s retirement came at the very onset of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) hysteria, findings which Borland himself cited when he told ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” that his retirement was spurred by a desire to “do what’s best for (his) health.” Since Borland’s retirement, the NFL has endured a string of retirements from some of its most marketable talent. Calvin Johnson opted for retirement at the age of 30; Patrick Willis at age 30; Rob Gronkowski at age 29. The list goes on and on.

While the NFL can withstand the retirement of its most talented players, what should worry executives is how commonplace such retirements have become. The studies surrounding the impact of concussions on long-term mental health has presented a difficult choice not only for current players, but also parents considering enrolling their children in youth football programs. It’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore the class-action lawsuits put forth by over 2,000 former players who claim the NFL and its lack of transparency over long-term head trauma has irreparably compromised their futures. 

With the benefit of retrospect, we often applaud players for prioritizing their mental and physical health over the allure of gridiron glory. In some cases, however, we are left to contemplate a series of what-ifs. In 2012, NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau claimed his own life. By all accounts, Seau was an energetic leader, a gracious host and a fiercely loyal friend. His immediate family members were left blindsided, claiming there was no indication of emotional distress.

“We’re all in shock,” Junior’s mother, Luisa, stated. “There is no way to make sense of this.”

Shawn Mitchell, then-pastor of the San Diego Chargers offered, “he was Superman, and Superman is no longer with us.”

However, the warning signs were there. In 2010, Seau survived a 100-foot plunge when his vehicle drove off the edge of a cliff.  The incident came in the immediate aftermath of accusations of domestic violence. It was determined that drugs and alcohol were not contributing factors, begging the question: why didn’t we recognize the deterioration of his mental health sooner?

It’s hard not to remember Junior Seau’s infectious smile, a smile that has underscored the damage of degenerative brain disease. While such a tragedy has contributed to the awareness and subsequent scientific emphasis surrounding brain degeneration, perhaps Seau’s suicide was avoidable had the NFL offered even a modicum of transparency.  

Today, lawmakers are pushing legislation that will prohibit children younger than twelve years old from participating in football. Youth football has already experienced a steady decline in enrollment. A few short years ago, it was difficult for fans to envision an America where American football is not the preeminent team sport. Today, that scenario is, at the very least, feasible.

As with every other premature retirement, the shock surrounding Andrew Luck’s announcement will wear with time, leaving in its wake an uncomfortable yet necessary dialogue.  High school and college athletes will be forced to weigh the long-term traumas of American football against the improbability of professionalism. The statistics are unfavorable. According to NCAA.org, only 1.6 percent of college football players reach the NFL. High school athletes are even less likely to reach the professional level, with only 0.09 percent making it beyond the college ranks. Right now, the professionals are speaking and their message is clear: the dream is not worth the physical and psychological consequences. At what point is it our responsibility to listen?

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