Andrew Luck, a star quarterback who has played for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts since 2012, announced Saturday that he is retiring from football at age 29. “The endless barrage of injuries stripped away his joy for the game and prompted him to walk away so he could enjoy the life he wants,” wrote The Associated Press’ Michael Marot. Luck’s surprise announcement drew a wide range of reactions from fans, fellow athletes and sports commentators.
It’s important for all of us, especially our young people, to take away the right messages from Luck’s retirement.
Just as Luck was unfortunately bombarded with boos as he left the field in Indianapolis on Saturday, we have been bombarded with nonstop commentaries, debates and “hot takes” on his retirement.
For example, national commentator Doug Gottlieb tweeted, “Retiring cause rehabbing is ‘too hard’ is the most millennial thing ever.”
That’s an awful and mean-spirited stance, and Gottlieb was rightfully lambasted by everyone from former pro baseball and football star Bo Jackson to Fox Sports colleague Troy Aikman, who tweeted back, “What qualifies you to decide how someone should live their life?”
Certainly, Aikman — a Pro Football Hall of Famer who led the Dallas Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles — knows a little about life as an NFL quarterback.
And what does this have to do with millennials? Every generation has had professional athletes who retired young: legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax, tennis player Bjorn Borg, golfer Lorena Ochoa, ice hockey player Bobby Orr and football player Jim Brown. That’s pretty fine company. Most of them are just lucky, we suppose, that Twitter wasn’t around when they decided to walk away while on top of their sports.
And here’s one more dreadful take we should mention: ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith defended the Indianapolis fans who booed Luck off the field for his farewell.
“The fans were not wrong,” Smith said. “I think it’s real popular to sit up here and point the finger at the fan and a lot of times it is justified and it is deserved, but I gotta say ... everything should be contextualized.”
Here’s our context: Sports are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be a much-needed escape from the stresses and demands of our lives and the national news. Athletes, like us, are just trying to do their jobs.
Every time we jeer athletes or officials, it’s a missed opportunity to set a better example for the young people around us. They take cues from the words and actions of adults. That’s how the culture of derision can seep down to high school and youth athletics, where it becomes a much greater issue.
These are the points surrounding Luck’s retirement that we believe should be reinforced.
— We should listen to what our bodies are telling us. And we should listen to what our kids say their bodies are telling them when they play sports.
Said Luck: “I’m in pain, I’m still in pain. It’s been four years of this pain, rehab cycle. It’s a myriad of issues — calf strain, posterior ankle impingement, high ankle sprain. Part of my journey going forward will be figuring out how to feel better.”
Too often, our culture encourages people — athletes or not — to “shake it off,” “gut it out” and “play through the pain.” It’s a mindset that can be harmful.
We should be honest about our ailments and our limitations. We should instill the importance of this kind of honesty in our young people. It’s OK to say something hurts too much. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to turn the page and walk away from something, if the physical or emotional pain is too great.
— The NFL is an absolutely brutal business, and Luck had the luxury of walking away that not everyone does. According to CNBC, Luck has already earned more than $97 million, which means he won’t really miss the remaining $58 million on his contract.
Very few pro football players have that kind of security. According to the NFL Players Association, the average career length is about 3.3 seasons.
And those can be pain-filled years. Earlier this week, SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg wrote: “Fans would be shocked how many players are just hoping to play long enough so that they qualify for a pension, or how many lose their love of the game while they are still good enough to play it. ... People are physically hurting all the time. Every day of the season, on every team, somebody is wondering how much longer he can do this.”
That leads to our last point.
— We should stress the importance of an education to all young and aspiring athletes.
Luck is going to be OK. He has a degree in architectural design from Stanford University’s School of Engineering. In 2011, The New York Times reported that “his most satisfying academic experience came from earning a B in Engineering 14, a class that blended concepts of architectural, civil, mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering.”
Luck has interests off the football field (including his own book club, complete with website and podcast) and the sterling academic credentials to support the next chapter of his life.
Only an incredibly small number of people become professional athletes. And yet so many high school and college students — especially those who play football, basketball and baseball — prioritize sports in the unrealistic quest for stardom.
We should urge them to widen their focus, to develop a backup plan and interests other than sports.
Luck did that.
It’s not just luck that he’s going to land on his feet after his early exit from the NFL. That’s a lesson we might want to highlight to our kids.