The cycling champion Lance Armstrong once said, “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”
That may be true in the Tour de France but it’s not the case in professional football. Rob Gronkowski and Andrew Luck are the latest NFL stars to retire before their 30s, walking away from lucrative careers before the pain they experienced became permanent conditions.
Western New Yorkers have always taken pride in their blue-collar work ethic, while relating to athletes who showed the same qualities. While it takes physical courage to play in the NFL, Gronkowski and Luck showed another kind of grit by walking away from the game.
Luck’s decision, in particular, brought criticism from some NFL observers. Fox Sports 1 analyst Doug Gottlieb wrote on Twitter: “Retiring cause rehabbing is ‘too hard’ is the most millennial thing ever #AndrewLuck”
Gottlieb’s tweet was roundly criticized. Gronkowski came to Luck’s defense in his own news conference on Tuesday.
“Anyone that plays the game of football isn’t soft, I can tell you that right now,” Gronkowski said regarding critics of Luck. “The wreckage that you’ve absorbed from the hits is second to none. No one really understands what it is unless you play football.”
Concerns about the dangers of the game have been magnified in the past 12 years, as more became known about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a deadly brain condition related to concussions.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk, a West Seneca native, was found to have CTE after he died in a crash while driving the wrong way on the New York Thruway.
Some thought the threat of CTE and related lawsuits might put the NFL out of business. Doug Whaley, then general manager of the Buffalo Bills, caused a stir in 2016 when he told a radio interviewer that football “is a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play.”
Participation in high school football has been on the decline for several years, but the pro game, whose 2019 season kicks off next week, isn’t going away.
According to TV News Check, viewership for NFL games across all networks was up 5% last year, with an average audience of 15.8 million viewers per game.
There are still old-school fans who spout cliches about on-field toughness, but our society is moving toward an understanding that the “gladiators” we see on the field are putting themselves at risk, physically and emotionally.
Both Luck and Gronkowski, an Amherst native, hinted at concerns about their mental health.
“I needed to recover. I was not in a good place,” Gronkowski said. “Football was bringing me down, and I didn’t like it. I was losing that joy in life.”
The great running back Jim Brown retired early in the 1960s to pursue acting. Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, two former Detroit Lions, also left the game suddenly. Now the trend is accelerating. John Urschel, a Canisius High School graduate and math prodigy, in 2017 retired from the Baltimore Ravens after just three seasons.
One of the most famous football departures was executed by 30-year-old defensive back Vontae Davis, who retired from the Buffalo Bills in September of last year at halftime of the Bills’ loss to the Chargers. Some of his teammates were offended, saying Davis “disrespected” them.
Davis said it just occurred to him during the game that “I don’t belong on that field anymore.”
The minimum salary in the NFL is $480,000. There is no labor shortage in this industry, but more and more players are going to decide after a few seasons that they don’t belong on the field. Fans and commentators – whether they ever played the game or not – should respect their decisions.