“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab,” Luck said in an impromptu press conference addressing his sudden retirement on Saturday. “It’s been unceasing, and unrelenting, both in season and in the off-season. 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.”
Overcome with emotion, Luck paused and then said, “Sorry,” as if he had anything to apologize for. Much as spectators booed Luck as he walked off the field in Indianapolis, commentators on social media let loose all sorts of dumb opinions questioning Luck’s toughness and calling him soft. Fantasy football players—including O. J. Simpson—whined about Luck torpedoing their teams. Suddenly Luck was Exhibit A that Millennials had ruined everything, including the precious sport of professional football.
Not all fans are actually capable of seeing the humanity of the players they follow so closely. When the allure of the game is rooted in violence, and in conformity to whatever the team demands, players are treated as physical objects and nothing more.
Football players used to be content to play along with the narrative that their bodies were meant to be used up. They all proudly embraced the idea that they were warriors and gladiators and that, regardless of the private pain they suffered—be that emotional or physical—they were designed differently than anyone else. They were built to withstand practically anything.
But as Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, do better.” And unlike the previous generations of NFL players, today’s players are more keenly aware that their relationship with fans and the game itself is totally conditional.
Former NFL player Martellus Bennett, who retired at 31 years old in 2018 after winning a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, tweeted, “Football doesn’t care about players. Players are starting to realize that more and more. The game gets what it needs from you then moves on. Now that players are getting what they need from the game and moving on, it’s fucking up the ecosystem.”
Rob Gronkowski, who became one of the best tight ends in NFL history while playing for the Patriots, also retired right before his 30th birthday this year. In his nine seasons with New England, Gronkowski endured back, ankle, hip, forearm, and head injuries. In fact, right before the Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, Gronk candidly discussed the impact the multitude of injuries had had on his body.
“The season is a grind,” he said. “It’s up and down. I’m not going to lie and sit here and say every week is the best. Not at all. You go up. You go down. You can take some serious hits. Try to imagine getting hit all the time and trying to be where you want to be every day in life. It’s tough. It’s difficult. To take hits to the thigh, to take hits to your head, abusing your body, isn’t what your brain wants. When your body is abused, it can bring down your mood. You have to be able to deal with that, too, throughout the season. You have to be able to deal with that going into games.”