They know what they signed up for.
That’s the brusque bromide that football fans utter to justify and rationalize the pain and abuse that NFL players subject their bodies to in the name of wealth, fame, and entertainment. It’s the NFL observer affirmation, a reassuring invocation that serves as both absolution for feeding the unforgiving football beast and an invitation to dehumanize those who lay their bodies on the line.
The players do know what they’re signing up for when they commit themselves to a career featuring car-crash collisions with other human beings. That’s their choice. But their football free will goes both ways. They’re also free to decide when they no longer want to sacrifice their bodies and risk their long-term health for a game they love. That’s why the outcry over the unexpected retirement of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is disturbing. That’s why it’s misguided. That’s why it’s hypocritical.
This current generation of NFL players is more informed than any one before it about the health risks and long-term ramifications of playing professional football. (A recent Harvard study detailed that NFL players were six times more likely than members of the general public to report cognitive issues.) Previous players didn’t know any better. These guys do, and players such as Luck and former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski are deciding enough pain is enough and walking away.
But that’s not good enough for some, who question their toughness, their commitment, and their manhood for failing to keep taking a risk that those detractors are all too happy to write off from the safety of their microphone, keyboard, cubicle, or car.
We want the players to take all the responsibility for their health and well-being right up until the point when they prioritize their long-term health over our precious entertainment. Then that’s an affront. Please. The booing of Luck by Colts fans last Saturday after news of his retirement leaked was shameful. Their disappointment was understandable, but taking it out on Luck in that manner was unacceptable.
It’s much easier to be a football fan when you can treat the humans under the helmets like disposable razors.
“I would just say that I would hope that anybody who is a fan of football would just understand that this game is taxing. It’s taxing on our bodies, our mental health, and our health and safety is what most players think about, especially in today’s game,” said New York Giants safety Michael Thomas, who played with Luck in college at Stanford and is close friends with him.
“They should respect anybody who says that they’re stepping away from this game because they’ve given this game all they got, and it’s physically beaten them up . . . They should respect that. They might deem it prematurely leaving the game or whatever. But I hope they would respect that and not boo.”
It speaks to the demanding nature of pro football that within six months two high-profile NFL superstars, Gronk and Luck, stepped away from the game before the age of 30, drained by the physical toll it was taking on their bodies and the mental anguish caused by constant injuries and persistent physical pain. Both characterized their retirements in terms of quality-of-life decisions.
“I haven’t been able to live the life I want to live,” Luck said last Saturday when explaining his decision. “[It has] taken the joy out of this game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again.”
Luck, who won NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors last season after missing all of 2017 to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, decided sacrificing his quality of life was no longer worth it after being unable to overcome a vexing calf strain/posterior ankle impingement/high-ankle sprain that had prevented him from playing all preseason and wasn’t improving.
Gronk, who, dating back to college, endured nine surgeries during his playing career, said he felt Luck’s pain. “I feel where he is at.”
During his news conference on Tuesday to announce his partnership with CBDMEDIC to promote CBD (cannabidiol) pain-relief products, Gronkowski was on the verge of tears as he explained the pain that pushed him to retirement.
“I needed to recover. I was not in a good place. Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it,” said Gronk. “I was losing that joy in life. I really was, and I was fighting through it. I knew what I signed up for, and I knew what I was fighting through. I knew I just had to fix myself.”
A lot of NFL players in the fraternity of force can empathize with Luck and Gronk, even if some fans won’t sympathize with them.
“I just know what these men, all of us, put on the line on a day-to-day basis, especially every time that we step out on that field, regardless of if it’s practice, preseason, regular-season games, whatever,” said Thomas. “We know what those injuries are. We know what those risks are.
“You see the reactions of every NFL player. They’re like, ‘I respect it.’ We see it. We understood exactly where [Luck is] coming from. You can only ask fans to understand, but I guess unless you have actually gone through it or see it on a day-to-day basis you probably wouldn’t understand.”
Or maybe it’s just easier to bemoan the state of your fantasy football team than remember these are actual human beings whose sole reason for existence is not to wear a jersey and helmet for the pro football public’s entertainment. These aren’t two-dimensional video game characters. They’re people.
It’s absurd that someone would question the mental toughness of Luck, who played through and came back from injuries such as torn cartilage in two ribs, a partially torn abdomen, and a lacerated kidney.
There is a deep desire for Gronkowski, a glutton for punishment in his Patriots days, to return to Fort Foxborough. But, after finally finding a pain-free existence, does he want to?
As he said, being beat up and feeling like feces is no way to live or play. But it’s part and parcel of NFL existence for a lot of players.
“I know the toll that the NFL brings. I could be 100 percent healthy and go back, and I know I’m putting my body in jeopardy. It’s a brutal sport,” Gronk said. “That’s why everyone loves the game of football . . . You see those collisions every day and every game. They’re huge. They’re massive. You can’t get that anywhere else in sports. That’s why people love the game.”
But that love comes at a cost that the players bear alone. That’s why no one has a right to begrudge them deciding for how long and how much they want to put their bodies on the line. It’s their prerogative.
When the cheering stops, they have to live with the consequences of whatever decisions and sacrifices they’ve made. We get to move on to the next collection of disposable razors, er, players.
So, let’s give it a rest when it comes to chastising players who decide they no longer want to sign up for what they signed up for.