Earlier this week, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, retired. The announcement surprised the entire sports world: Luck is a former number one overall draft pick, a four-time Pro Bowler who, in the context of quadragenarians like Tom Brady, could have played for at least another decade. Colts’ owner Jim Irsay estimated Luck was giving up not just the $60 million he was owed over the life of his current contract, but as much as $450 million in future salary.
But I’m not shocked. Luck has played more than a decade of high-level, year-round football both for the Colts and at Stanford University. He’s dealt with a litany of injuries more reminiscent of someone involved in a car crash than a professional athlete, including a concussion, a torn labrum, and a lacerated kidney. That’s likely why the players around him have, nearly unequivocally, understood his decision. At some point, career viability matters less than the freedom to live a normal life without pain. And so on a Saturday afternoon in the August preseason, at the snap of a finger, Luck short-circuited our fandom and was gone.
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What’s truly unusual about Luck isn’t the choice he made — it’s the fact that he had the freedom to make it. Luck is the son of former Houston Oilers quarterback and current XFL commissioner Oliver Luck, which at least theoretically means his extended family is not reliant on his NFL income. He’s a Stanford graduate, with a second career available to him if he chooses. Football might have needed Andrew Luck, but Andrew Luck doesn’t need football.
Most NFL players aren’t so — ahem — lucky. The majority have spent a good portion of their adolescent and adult lives perfecting physical skills to make a career out of football, sacrificing other opportunities to do so. In a 2011 survey, NCAA Division I football players reported an average of close to 40 hours a week of athletic activity in-season, double the NCAA’s own restriction on time spent in athletic activity. That means there was no time in college for labs, study sessions, or other enrichment that a normal student gets — all of which are important parts of determining a career path. As a result, the handful of players who manage to secure a career in professional football are left adrift once they are forced into retirement.
Even worse is the physical damage to players’ bodies. Luck’s injury list is the norm, not the exception. In the NFL, as long as you have four accredited seasons to your name, you’ll receive the same health care as current players for up to five years. That care comes with two issues. First, the average NFL career is about 3.3 years, meaning many players won’t qualify for that health care at all. Second, medical issues of former players can, and will, show up beyond that five year limit, leaving players on the hook for their own care. That’s particularly troubling given the new research around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head injuries, which new studies estimate affects at least 10 percent of professional players. CTE is progressive and debilitating, but it often does not show symptoms until many years after the injuries that caused it.
The NFL may be great work if you can get it — the rookie minimum salary for the 53-man roster is $480,000 — but one has to reasonably ask: Is it worth it?
To answer that question, you also have to understand where the majority of NFL players come from, and what they look like. Today, more than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American, and face a much higher likelihood of being in poverty than most demographic groups. The average household income for an African-American family hovers roughly around $40,000 a year, making NFL salaries particularly tempting. When a player is making the decision of whether an NFL career is worth the risk, it depends on who you ask and where they’re from.
In this context, it becomes pretty hard to fault Luck for stepping away from the game when he did. Hopefully, he will be able to heal his body and avoid the nagging injuries that plague many former players. Hopefully, he will find meaningful work that will allow him to take care of himself and his family. To step away from a career, a vocation, that you are passionate about is difficult no matter what it is, and for that Luck’s care and grace in the face of perplexity should be commended. But let’s not forget that Luck’s economic background and education allowed him to make a choice of passion, rather than a choice of need like so many others have to. And if we’re going to be shocked by anything in this whole saga, it should be that.