We talk about issues in the NFL in ways that would seem bizarre if we applied them to any other aspect of life. Typically, if we heard about a 29-year-old quitting a job in order to try something else, our reaction would probably fall along the lines of: “huh.” A 29-year-old, we would reason, is young; young people often don’t have their lives figured out yet. One of the tasks of young people is to try to find a life that will make them happy. Besides, we would think, people become disenchanted with their jobs all the time, at all ages, for all sorts of reasons. Normally, when we encounter someone who has become disenchanted with their job, our response is to say something like, “Hey, I hope you find something else you like more, maybe a different job, or else you could try going to Greece.” It is not to clench our fists, narrow our eyes, and hiss, “You owe it to me to continue doing that job, you loser—you coward.”
Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, decided last weekend to quit his job in order to look for something more fulfilling to do. He said he was exhausted by the toll football had taken on his body, and by the constant cycle of rehabbing from injuries—and here, again, if someone in a different line of work was to tell us that they needed a change because the job they were doing was breaking them down physically, I think we’d react, under normal circumstances, with total understanding and sympathy. Even if the person were very highly paid, I don’t think we’d be surprised or offended if he wanted to exit a career in which he was routinely hospitalized.
“Sure, I make a lot of money in finance,” he’d say, “but at frequent intervals, a 280-pound man bursts into my office, hurls himself at my desk chair, and drives me bodily into the ground.”
“What about the people who are emotionally invested in your corporation’s quarterly results, Glen?” we would probably not shriek at him when he said he’d decided to retire, flinging our trading-floor-worn Charles Schwab jerseys to the ground in disgust.
In the NFL, however, a 29-year-old is not considered young, to lose enthusiasm for your work is considered potentially treasonous, and physical pain is not considered a valid reason to stop doing the thing that causes it. And so in the aftermath of Luck’s announcement, the retirement itself, something that would be seen as unexceptional and normal in any other circumstances, was instead seen as shocking and possibly treasonous. Furious criticism of Luck, which would have seemed counterintuitive and bizarre in other circumstances, was instead the most predictable and unsurprising aspect of the entire story. No one expected the retirement, but everyone expected the tidal wave of bad tweets and talk-radio rants about whatever happened to good old-fashioned toughness. Even people who didn’t agree with them expected them, because they are simply what happens when your entire sports league is perched on the American culture war’s gaping hellmouth.
What I want to suggest here, just gently, is that a 29-year-old quitting his job because he lost his taste for it is not a national emergency. In fact, seen outside the distortion field of NFL rhetoric, it’s not even especially remarkable. It’s remarkable because it’s unusual for quarterbacks of Luck’s caliber—we’re more accustomed to the Tom Brady model, in which elite QBs hang on till they are more alkaline than man—and because it provokes a realignment of the NFL power rankings two weeks before the start of the season. As a human decision, though? A financially secure young person decided his job wasn’t working for him and chose to leave it rather than continue and be unhappy. This is fine. It is the literal definition of fine. It’s sad for fans who enjoyed watching Luck play, of course, but athletes don’t owe fans their lives. It only seems earth-shattering because the NFL—the league that for America means freedom and freedom means unswerving devotion to a narrow warrior code plus swift punishment for anyone who deviates from it—has created such a backward internal reality for itself.
Andrew Luck is by all accounts a thoughtful and curious person, though those qualities are not prerequisites for being entitled to seek happiness in your own life. He loved playing football for a long time, and then something changed, and he didn’t love it as much anymore. Life stories come in a lot of different varieties. This one might not be as satisfying, when judged by the aesthetic sensibilities of a football fan, as one in which the brilliant quarterback remains in love with football, wins two Super Bowls in his mid-30s, and thanks the fans for being his rock and his strength. But Andrew Luck’s life story doesn’t have to satisfy the aesthetic sensibilities of football fans; it has to satisfy Andrew Luck. The aesthetic sensibilities of football fans are not binding moral precepts. If they were, football fans themselves—most of whom would not choose to suffer a lacerated kidney to benefit their employers, as Luck did in 2015–would be living in grotesque violation of them.
I only once saw Luck play in person. It was in 2011, his last year at Stanford. I went with my two brothers-in-law, one of whom is a Stanford alum, to watch the Oregon game in Palo Alto. Both teams were national title contenders—Stanford was ranked no. 3, Oregon was no. 6—and the game would determine which team would play in the Pac-12 championship game. I didn’t care much about either Stanford or Oregon football, but I was excited to see Luck, who was the leading Heisman candidate and a potentially epochal NFL quarterback. This had the potential to be the crowning moment of his college career and an early statement game for a historically great player. But life stories come in all sorts of different varieties. Luck played pretty well, but Stanford got obliterated, 53-30, and Oregon’s last touchdown came on a 40-yard interception return. Luck didn’t win the Heisman; Stanford got demoted to the Fiesta Bowl, where they lost in overtime to my Oklahoma State Cowboys. The loss to Oregon wasn’t what I’d wanted to see as a football fan, but it was a reminder that as a fan, you’re only entitled to hope for things. You’re not entitled to expect them.
In any case, I hope Luck finds what he’s looking for. For those of us who followed his career and liked watching him play, his retirement will leave a sense of incompleteness, of a half-finished legacy. But legacy is part of a story fans tell about the games they follow. Athletes are free to care about it or not. Luck will not be remembered as an all-time great quarterback after retiring at 29, but being remembered as an all-time great quarterback only has value if you decide it does. What I want from my own fandom is a broader sense of human possibility and a less restrictive, defensive, and uptight way of thinking about behavior within sports. Luck, a young person trying to work out what’s best for his own life, made an understandable human choice. It will either work out for him or not, or else—like most choices—it will sort of work out and sort of not and who can say for sure. We might as well wish him the best; in any case, we can avoid falling prey to rhetoric that makes the choice look more outlandish, and therefore less accessible to compassion than it really is.