SALT LAKE CITY — Andrew Luck, Pro Bowl quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, shocked the sports establishment Saturday by retiring from football at age 29. The game, he explained, had become too mentally and physically taxing. Too burdensome. Too much unending rehab. The game, in short, stopped being fun. And Luck chose to prioritize his long-term health and life.
“I’m in pain,” he told reporters after getting booed off the field following the Colts’ preseason game on Saturday. “I’m still in pain. I’ve been in this cycle which feels like, I mean, it’s been four years of this injury, pain, rehab cycle, and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football.”
But in part thanks to the boos, the conversation shifted from shock to a mixture of anger and support. Some football fans expressed a sentiment similar to Fox Sports radio host Doug Gottlieb, who tweeted, “Retiring cause rehabbing is ‘too hard’ is the most millennial thing ever.”
Many people criticized Gottlieb. ESPN’s Mike Golic, for one, wrote, “Doug come on, I hope you are kidding, and not just looking for attention, that’s just a ridiculous take.” Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman added, “What qualifies you to decide how someone should live their life? So you’re now the authority on what motivates Andrew Luck? And if his decisions don’t fit into what you think is best for him then you rip him?” along with an eight-letter expletive. And fellow NFL starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers told Mad Dog Sports Radio, “I think he should be championed and appreciated and given the praise he’s due for making a decision that’s in the best interest of himself and his wife and his family, for his own personal quality of life.” They appeared to be in the majority.
Many people — including Colts coach Frank Reich, who called Luck “courageous” and “honorable” — defended Luck’s decision. But when Colts fans booed him, questions surfaced about the ethics of his decision. And they prompted bigger questions about the virtues (or lack thereof) of giving up — especially for parents of aspiring football players as the game continues to be scrutinized over links to health problems.
Critics called Luck “soft” and weak, as detailed by The New York Times. Some discussed his ripple effect on fantasy football rosters, and closely related, some, with a new NFL season two weeks away, criticized his timing. The debate recalled a recent controversy from the Little League World Series. A pitcher for New England surrendered a home run to a Southeast player and high-fived the hitter as he rounded third base. Despite framing it as good sportsmanship, a tweet from ESPN (and other outlets) incited riotous comments, with many saying that pitcher should have to walk home for his lack of competitive drive, or that he should throw his next pitch at the hitter’s chin.
That debate falls back on values — those who value competitive fervor and uninterrupted effort versus those who value maximizing sportsmanship and fun. Just like Luck’s retirement pits those who value hard work, commitment, loyalty and playing through the pain against those who value health, longevity and autonomy. These conflicting values are not simple.
Mark Higgs, a former Miami Dolphins running back who’s now suffering a throng of health issues, told the Miami Herald in 2017 that he wouldn’t go back and change anything about his past, even though he’s sure playing football caused some of his ailments. It allowed a kid from rural Kentucky to see the world, make money and experience things few people are able to experience. And Joy Gowans, a mother of four football-playing boys from Bountiful, told the Deseret News she also sees the value of football. She likened the physically demanding bonding of the sport to the military, and she loves the camaraderie it’s helped her sons develop.
“They come together,” she said, “as you hope they would in a family.”
But her third son, 20-year-old Paxton, wants to play football for Dixie State. She doesn’t want him to. Because in his senior year of high school, playing for Bountiful against Woods Cross, he suffered a concussion.
“It was not his first concussion,” Joy remembered, “or his second.”
He hasn’t been deterred. He views his football career as “paused,” and still aims to eventually play for Dixie State. He’s dreamt of playing college football since he was a toddler, and he knows if he doesn’t give it his best effort, he’ll regret it. But he said the key is that the game, for him, remains fun. He thinks about the joy of it constantly. So he understands Luck’s decision.
“If I’m not having fun playing the game anymore,” he said, “I’d probably quit too.”
That would be much to his mother’s relief. If he called her up tomorrow and told her he’d decided to quit football, she didn’t hesitate in saying she’d be happy. She also appreciates Luck for foregoing two of society’s greatest motivators — money and status — in favor of long-term health. She’d seen her second-oldest son, 23, slip into depression after crying during his last high school game. “He just didn’t know what to think about,” she said, with the game he played for so many years taken away.
So she admires Luck — who could have been the first overall pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2011, had he not chosen to return to Stanford for a fourth year to finish his architecture degree — for having the gumption to put his long-term life above the demands of fans and society, and of the millions he’s giving up. And she doesn’t appreciate the criticism — especially by those who question his passion for football.
“That bothers me,” she said. “If you make it to that level, you’re not a quitter.”
Susan Newman, a social psychologist who focuses on family life, wrote in Psychology Today earlier this year that quitting can actually be good for kids. “There’s a misconception that quitting is cowardly, but when you insist that your children stick with an activity that makes them miserable, you may inadvertently teach them to stay in bad situations,” she said. “On the flip side, kids who work up the courage to drop a detested activity feel more in control of their fate.”
A 2007 piece in Newsweek also argued for the virtues of quitting. It cited a study that examined life outcomes between relentless people and those who are “more accepting of life’s curveballs.” Results were clear: “Quitters,” Newsweek wrote, “are healthier... by almost every measure.” The study focused on tenacity in the face of unattainable or unlikely goals — a mediocre athlete who wants to play in college, for example. Those who stopped pursuing their near-impossible goals were much healthier. But the study also noted the benefits of setting new goals and re-engaging once an old goal has been deserted. “We all abandon life goals,” the Newsweek story concluded. “The only question is whether we make our life adjustments with grace and good timing.”
Luck’s situation recalls an episode of the Fox animated sitcom “King of the Hill.”
In “Life in the Fast Lane, Bobby’s Saga,” Hank, the conservative, straight-edged, by-the-book father wants to teach his 12-year-old son, Bobby, about responsibility, so he helps him land a job selling drinks at the local race track. Bobby’s boss turns out to be an incompetent fool, and after one day, Bobby tells Hank he’s decided to quit. He notes his boss “might be a moron.”
“I know your first day was hard, but don’t call your boss names,” Hank responds. “That’s actin’ like a baby. Babies want everything handed to ‘em. But you’re there to work and not play. That’s why it’s called ‘work,’ and not ‘play.’ And if you don’t understand that, well, son, maybe you’re the moron.”
Hank’s response is classic old-school America, espousing values of hard work and stick-to-it-ness. He follows up with his secret to overcoming any job’s shortcomings: Always giving 110%. But by the episode’s end, after Hank discover’s Bobby’s boss urging him to walk across an active race track, Hank realizes he was wrong to blindly trust his values.
“I just wanted to say,” he concludes the episode, “I shoulda listened to you when you said how bad (it) was.”
Joy is almost like a real-life Hank (though not as stubborn). She’s seen positives of football in her kids — she knows how valuable it can be. But she’s also seen the problems, and she’d understand if they wanted to give it up.
Luck, whose injury history includes torn rib cartilage, a concussion and a lacerated kidney, among others, chose to give up millions playing a game he’s spent his entire life preparing for, leaving behind an unfulfilled legacy as one of the most touted draft picks of the 21st century, because his mind and body could no longer tolerate the gruesome grind. Even though doing so means forfeiting more than $58 million, per Darren Rovell, plus any future contracts.
“That,” Joy said, “I call an admirable decision.”