QB Andrew Luck's retirement is a message for NFL fans to stop treating players like gladiators

Watching your team lose and griping about it is nothing compared to the pain of a broken body, and the fans who booed Luck for quitting don't get that.
Image: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck throws a pass against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck throws a pass against the Baltimore Ravens in 2013.Rob Carr / Getty Images file
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By Corbin Smith

On Saturday, right before the end of the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears, ESPN NFL correspondent Adam Schefter reported a shocking development about the Colts’ star quarterback, Andrew Luck:

Luck wasn’t planning on anyone knowing of his decision to retire until Sunday, but someone leaked it to Schefter, and he published the scoop, as per the customs of his particular job. Word spread, and as Luck left the field for the last time as an NFL player, an ugly scene played out in Lucas Oil Stadium, the hulking cube where Luck, celebrated by fans for over half a decade, had played all of his home games: A small torrent of boos rained down on him simply because, at 29, he had decided that it was time to move on with his life.

Luck was hoping to avoid this scene and tell his teammates first, but the sports media economy waits for no man. In the immediate wake of his announcement, there was a broad sense of confusion. Luck was so young and had so much more football to play and so much money to make, why would he turn around and decide to begin the next phase of his life so quickly?

Because, it turns out, he was in pain.

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It’s impressive, in a way, that Luck was able to prioritize what was best for himself over the pressure of money, agents, media outlets and, yes, fans. Luck has other interests and enough money for several lifetimes. Why should he have to go through the nightmare of rehab, reinjury, pain and rehab, over and over, if it’s only going to make him miserable and leave him broken for the rest of his life?

Yet as a society, we have paradoxically elevated sports heroes beyond the human realm — perhaps because they perform such supernatural feats — to a place where anything less than superhuman performance is unacceptable, as well as objectified them into a place of degradation where, like the gladiators of ancient Rome, their life’s purpose is solely our entertainment.

In reality, sports are hard work. Staying in shape is tedious, practices are endless, film sessions are mentally taxing, travel is wearying, and time away from one’s family is emotionally stressful. It’s a wonderful life if you can synthesize that perverse alchemy you need to make it, of course. But it’s labor, work like any other other: back-breaking, annoying, life-consuming.

But sports media and fandom don’t let the audience think of sports as individuals doing a job. They promote the product they sell by placing sports somewhere above labor, a calling with honor codes and people who “depend” on the athlete’s performance. Quitting when it’s time to quit isn’t seen as the natural thing to do; it’s seen as a moral abdication, a surrender to pain or to mental weakness, letting everyone down.

Fans are cast in a kind of secondary-protagonist role. Think about what we call a fanbase whose team has been subject to managerial malfeasance and losing for a long period of time: long-suffering. But the fake, consumerist anguish of watching your team lose and griping about it is nothing compared to the pain of a broken body, a brain that’s falling apart, the endless monotony of trying to inch back into good-enough physical condition to allow you to walk onto a field and risk getting absolutely lit up by J.J. Watt and every other 6-foot-5, 280-pound defensive linemen looking to drive you into the turf, play after play.

As Luck told reporters after his decision to retire became public, “For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury-pain-rehab-injury-pain-rehab, and it’s been unceasing, unrelenting, both in season and off season.” Asked for specifics, he reeled off a litany of afflictions: “calf strain. posterior impingement, high ankle sprain.” This is a man who managed to come pack from a lacerated kidney, for God’s sake!

“I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away,” he explained. “Part of my journey going forward will be getting out of pain and figuring out what’s going on and how to feel better, obviously.”

He didn’t want to press his luck, to put his face to the rehab grindstone for another year or two or 10, just to come out the other end with a body that doesn’t work and a nagging loathing of the thing he devoted the first part of his life to.

He’s not the only NFL Star to retire while still young and productive on the field. Legendary Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders retired at 30, in spitting distance of the NFL’s all-time rushing record. Calvin Johnson, the best receiver of his generation, also retired at 30. Luck isn’t even the first productive star to retire early this year: After a good season that ended with a Super Bowl win, Rob Gronkowski, generally regarded as the greatest NFL tight end of all time, stepped away from the game in March, weeks before he, too, turned 30.

But it’s pretty unusual for a quarterback, especially one as productive as Luck, who netted the second-most passing touchdowns and third-most passing yards for a player across his first six seasons. Consider that his entire career, back to front, was nestled in the second half of Tom Brady’s lengthy tenure in New England. Brett Farve, who got sacked all the time, played for nearly 20 years.

But then again, his predecessor in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning, went to absurd lengths to stay on the field in his late 30s. He underwent a spinal fusion procedure that basically welded two of his neck vertebrae together to relieve pain and keep him on the field. From there, he went through the dull rehab process, rebuilding strength, fiber by fiber, and teaching himself to be a football weapon again, but this time, with one less functioning spinal bone.

It’s no one’s moral responsibility to subject themselves to a lifetime of pain and suffering so fans can experience the rush of associated victory.

The kind of person who would boo someone for seeking to preserve his health and dignity, and the media chuds who feed into their entitled mindset for a paycheck, just don’t get it. It’s no one’s moral responsibility to subject themselves to a lifetime of pain and suffering so fans can experience the rush of associated victory when they lift a trophy at the end of a season.

Sports are excellent, they’re thrilling, they’re beautiful, they’re a fabulous communal experience that nothing else can quite achieve, even in a world with thousands of viewing options on hand at any given time. But sports aren’t so special, as labor, as work, that retiring when they start to make you miserable isn’t a rational and healthy thing to do. Luck should be proud that he didn’t let the braying masses convince him to subscribe to a life of tedium and suffering just because that’s what they want, and what they’ve come to expect from someone else’s body.