Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck shakes hands with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay after a news conference following the team's NFL preseason football game against the Chicago Bears, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, in Indianapolis. The oft-injured star is retiring at age 29.
Photo: AP Photo/Michael Conroy
Photo: AP Photo/Michael Conroy

The Falcons won’t face Andrew Luck in Indy. That’s a problem for the NFL.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn spent part of his summer looking at game video of the Colts, his team’s opponent Sunday. That meant close study of quarterback Andrew Luck. The Falcons hadn’t faced Luck during his six NFL seasons because he was sidelined by injury when the teams played in 2015 (the Colts beat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome with Matt Hasselbeck at QB). 

It turns out the Falcons won’t ever face Luck. He abruptly retired last month at age 29. His decision stunned observers who wondered why Luck would give up the game after a Pro Bowl season. But Luck said years of injuries had sapped his enjoyment of football and leaving it behind was the only way to “live the life I want to live.” 

Luck was dealing with a calf/ankle injury that he suffered in May. He could have returned to play but he said was done with the “injury-pain-rehab cycle” that had come to dominate his life. Quinn’s review of Luck’s play in 2018 confirmed that he still was a good, tough quarterback. 

“When I heard, I said, ‘Man, something must really be bothering him if it's gotten to that spot,’” Quinn said. 

Luck is the latest NFL player to leave football because of its physical and mental toll. Patriots star Rob Gronkowski made the same decision months earlier. Last season two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis gave up football in the middle of a game because he decided it was “better to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late.” 

The retirement of star players for health reasons is part of an existential crisis for football and its top league. There are more questions than ever about the game’s safety. The NFL settled a class-action concussion lawsuit after years of denying and undermining the science regarding the effects of repetitive head trauma. Since then the league adopted game rules meant to protect players, touts a helmet it claims is safer and launched a PR campaign to convince the public that football isn’t dangerous. 

But those efforts are undercut by the reality of top professionals quitting football because of the health risks. Luck, Davis and Gronkowski all missed games because of concussions (Gronkowski recently said he suffered about 20 of them, including five that made him “blackout”). They gave up lots of money and then explained in detail the ways in which their bodies are broken and their minds tired. 

The real conundrum for the NFL is that violence is central to the game’s appeal. The league and its media partners used to be honest about it. NFL Films produced videos glorifying the biggest collisions (readers of a certain age may remember receiving one with their Sports Illustrated subscription). ESPN once ran a regular “Jacked Up!” segment in which Chris Berman, Tom Jackson and the gang whooped and hollered over highlights of potentially life-altering collisions. 

I used to enjoy that kind of stuff, but not so much anymore. I’m not alone. That’s why the NFL can’t be so straightforward about selling violence now. 

The league still views its players as commodities. Plenty of bloodthirsty fans are offended by the notion that they should care about player safety. But more people are starting to see players as human beings. It can make us queasy to watch players damage their bodies and minds for entertainment. 

Even some of the fans who like the violence of football may not want their kids to play it. A 2017 UMass Lowell-Washington Post poll found that most of the public believes tackle football is not safe for children before high school and only 57 percent think it’s safe for older students. The National Federation of State High School Associations said its most recent annual survey showed a decline in participation for 11-person football for the fifth consecutive year, to its lowest level since the 1999-2000 school year. 

That’s bad for the the NFL. It needs a constant supply of fresh bodies for its grinder just as much it needs customers for its product. Both goals are hindered when players such as Luck quit the game. The NFL loses players its customers want to see play, and for reasons that at least make them think about the cost of playing football. 

Luckily for the NFL, it’s PR efforts are aided by a player culture that tends to downplay the game’s risks. The “warrior mentality” Davis cited leads some players to lament rules on player safety. That makes sense for self-interested defensive players who are flagged for hits, but even players on the receiving end criticize the rules meant to protect them. 

That includes Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. During the Jaguars-Titans game on Thursday, Brady tweeted his complaints about too many penalties. A roughing penalty called against Titans linebacker Kamalei Correa apparently prompted Brady to write: “I’m turning off this game I can’t watch these ridiculous penalties anymore.” 

Former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was calling the game for NFL Network. Told about Brady’s tweets during the broadcast, Aikman said: “I agree, this is ridiculous.” 

Aikman suffered at least eight concussions during his 10-year career with the Cowboys. He has said he has no memory of playing in the January 2014 NFC Championship game after a knee to the head knocked him from the game. Aikman’s concussion history was among the data that a New York Times investigation found was omitted from what the NFL claimed was its comprehensive study of the issue.

There always will be people willing to sacrifice their health to play football. Luck decided he couldn’t be one of them any longer, even though he’s still one of the best. More youth players (or their parents) are making the same decisions. 

It’s not yet a real, full-blown crisis for the NFL. Here’s hoping it becomes one eventually. If so, the NFL could only blame its own greed and callousness.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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