This past week, there was shocking news from the NFL: Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck abruptly retired from football at age 29, citing “mental wear” due to injuries he sustained throughout his career. His announcement came following the third game of the NFL preseason. A high caliber, MVP-level player walked away from the game in the prime of his career because he was considering what his life would look like after football. His announcement should have been celebrated, but was instead met with criticism by Colts fans and sports media pundits across the board. Many took to Twitter and the media to berate Luck and characterize his decision as weak, or resembling a quitter’s mentality.
Once again, it’s time for a reminder that sports players are, in fact — and I checked this twice — still people. They are not alive solely for the purpose of our entertainment; they are alive to live their lives, just as you and I and your neighbor down the street are. Just because they achieve some form of a celebrity due to athletic achievement does not rob them of this right.
Once again, it’s time for a reminder that sports players are, in fact — and I checked this twice — still people
Sports stardom does not require players to “tough it out” and “play hurt,” risking their health long after the average fan remembers their name. It does not require an athlete to “shut up and play” when talking about equal compensation for equal work. It does not require an athlete to “shut up and play” when talking about social issues affecting their communities, consequently removing their autonomy to use their platform for change. And it most certainly does not require any player to “shut up and play” when they want to speak out about injuries they’ve sustained while playing and push for regulations to prevent them from happening again.
While these should seem like obvious acts of human decency, they are instead intuited by the general viewing audience as players “getting soft.” Instead, in football for instance, they are expected to take all of the violent hits possible, contract long-term brain and nerve damage because of these hits, be released when no longer athletically viable (or be one of the few who get to retire on their own terms), and be released back into the “real world” removed of any long-term care for the injuries they sustained. Because, by that point, the average fan will have moved on to the newest, flashiest players on their teams and forget about the incredible sacrifice these athletes made for our entertainment.
So, yes, if standing up for personal safety and life after a game is “getting soft,” let them get soft.
It is the athlete’s choice to play any game, and it is their choice and well within their rights to try and improve their working conditions by voicing their concerns. Yes, they are paid well — Andrew Luck reportedly walked away from $58 million remaining on his contract — but that does not mean that he should be forced to play because of the money. That is extortion. It is the athlete’s choice when they want to hang it all up. They owe the fans nothing, they owe the owners nothing, they owe the league nothing. If arguments can be made about the consent of a player to the dangers of their sport, the same should be reciprocated when a player decides it’s too much. Because the players are people too, dammit.