When Andrew Luck jogged off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the final time, the Colts fans booed. Through their smartphones the news had arrived that their franchise quarterback, a former number one overall pick, was retiring from the NFL at the age of twenty-nine. Luck’s decision to abruptly leave behind an organization that had staked so much in his success was an insult the fans wouldn’t abide. They paid premium money, after all, to see their gladiator ruin his body for their amusement.
Luck’s departure from the NFL is more than a sports story because no organized sport has so bled into the American fabric over the last thirty years. By revenue, ratings, and cultural currency, football dominates the world’s wealthiest country like no other. Football season, once begun, occludes baseball season, and the NBA only edges in when the Super Bowl, watched by one hundred million people annually, goes off air. A Hail Mary connotes a long, desperation pass downfield for more Americans than a Catholic prayer. John Madden, before his retirement, was America’s real dad, a roly-poly coach, commentator, and progenitor of an iconic video game franchise. Peyton Manning, Luck’s predecessor and the omnipotent star of kitschy round-the-clock TV commercials, will age into Madden’s role. Tom Brady, the smug and inevitable Super Bowl champion, is our national super villain.
The NFL is the only team sport that approximates war, during and after.
Luck, an elite quarterback who battled a terrifying array of maladies—a lacerated kidney, injured ribs, at least one concussion, torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder, as well as a calf and ankle injury—decided he couldn’t handle the physical and psychological torment his body was subjected to each year. Football had made him a wealthy man, but he was not ready to be a dead man. Not since Sandy Koufax, perhaps, has the nation been so captivated by an athlete leaving a major team sport in the prime of his career. Unlike Koufax, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who walked away from baseball at the age of thirty after suffering through debilitating arm injuries, Luck’s retirement will ultimately matter more because it represents another pivot point in the history of America’s national obsession. The NFL may just mark its decline from the moment Luck left the field.
The NFL is the only team sport that approximates war, during and after. Supersized men try to obliterate each other on a field for four quarters. In-game injuries are commonplace. Devasting tackles are celebrated on highlight reels. For potential millions, players are expected to physically punish opponents and endure repeated punishment in a confined space. There is, of course, an art and a brilliance to it, and the best players and coaches are as cerebral as they are ruthless. The sport is addictive because nothing in our history has been more conducive to television or gambling: organized, repeated spurts of violence on an easily demarcated, telegenic stretch of turf, all of it only once week, every game devolving into a pitched, thrilling Manichean struggle. During a football game you can bet, legally now, on virtually anything.
After the lights go out, lives are obliterated too. A large number of former players struggle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE leads to behavioral and cognitive problems, worsening over time and, in many cases, resulting in dementia. Early deaths are increasingly common. The generation of players who competed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s have been the most well-known sufferers of CTE, but now the latest cohort, those worshipped by millennials and the millennial athletes themselves, have spoken publicly about the daily hellishness of life after the NFL. Retired fullback Le’Ron McClain tweeted on August 24: “I have to get my head checked. Playing fullback since high school. Its takes too fucking much to do anything. My brain is fucking tired . . .” McClain is just thirty-four.
The NFL players who competed in the 2000s and 2010s knew a sport radically transformed from decades prior, and it’s their crippling that could trigger the NFL’s existential crisis. In the NFL of the twenty-first century, the players are far larger, stronger, and faster than any other generation. At six-foot-five and 250 pounds, Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, is larger than most offensive linemen who played in the 1960s. Today, no lineman can weigh under three hundred pounds. Even with the NFL’s new protocols to address concussions and ceaseless tinkering with the rulebook, the speed at which these men of inhuman proportions and power collide with one another can’t be mitigated in any serious way without changing the very nature of football itself. This current generation of players could be the most damaged yet.
There is already a small movement afoot to stop children from playing football. LeBron James said in 2014 he won’t let his son play football. NFL legend Troy Aikman said that if he had a ten-year-old son, he’d be wary of letting him suit up. Brett Favre, a quarterback of similar stature, said the same thing. Youth participation in tackle football is slowly declining. The NFL and college football thrive on recruiting elite athletes, largely black men, to fill their ranks and dazzle the kind of people who would boo Andrew Luck over leaving the game earlier than he was supposed to because he scuttled a betting line or knocked a fantasy football season off kilter. The football-industrial complex will face a reckoning when America’s best athletes, coming of age today and tomorrow, decide they’d rather play professional baseball or basketball, more lucrative sports that do not eventually leave you with dementia. When electrifying players like Antwaan Randle El, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver who terrorized the Jets teams of my youth, declare they wished they’d played baseball instead because walking down the stairs is almost an impossibility at age thirty-six, a sport enters a precarious place.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Like the oligarchs who dominate our political system, emboldened ever more by Donald Trump, the billionaires in charge of the NFL, and the commissioner who safeguards their interests, are not in retreat. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who earns about $30 million annually, is aggressively seeking to expand the season from sixteen to eighteen games. This has been a nonstarter with players who recognize two more games without a profound boost in income is merely two more opportunities to end a career or destroy a life. The league is hoping a beefed-up concussion protocol and redesigned helmets can compensate, somehow, for increased exposure to unprecedented violence. The NFL is something like a fossil fuel conglomerate, privately aware of how its product is despoiling the planet, forging ahead on oil exploration in the Arctic anyway, extracting whatever it can before the environment’s collapse. The concussion epidemic, like climate change, has been a slow-burning catastrophe, ignored or downplayed by powerful people as long as possible.
The NFL’s vaunted popularity was built on the American appetite for a version of violence that was both real and, paradoxically, seemingly harmless.
The common thread isn’t merely Trump, though he’s the president who openly mocked the NFL’s even minor attempts to make the game safer, and denigrated Colin Kaepernick’s protest for criminal justice reform, inflaming the most jingoistic and right-wing of the NFL’s fan base. It looms far larger, its ties much deeper. The profit motive, capitalism’s beating heart, ensures the most drastic actions to save the planet or protect the bodies of NFL players will not be taken because neither is an immediate or obvious money-making opportunity. Oil, gas, and coal companies stand to lose billions, even if the long-term stability of world economies depends on our climate not veering into cataclysm. The NFL’s vaunted popularity was built on the American appetite for a version of violence that was both real and, paradoxically, seemingly harmless. We could never abide by dog-fighting, bare-knuckled boxing, or Roman gladiator-style combat—imagine the blood!—but a game of brute, brain-busting collision-making could satiate us because the men were wearing helmets and pads and weren’t they just good-old boys, roughhousing for our amusement and a nice chunk of change? The most oblivious and uneducated of NFL fans now know that their sport leaves many of its participants physically and mentally incapacitated by middle age, if not far sooner. The league’s owners and leadership understood this long ago.
The question now is money. To change football to prevent future Andrew Lucks from walking away would mean to sacrifice what it is that made it so dominant in the United States. Tackle football can’t become touch football because touching the quarterback won’t be a multibillion-dollar industry. For now, the NFL can only hope the status quo lasts as long as possible: great athletes keep wanting to play, fans keep wanting to watch, and everyone, collectively, ignores the reality churning below. As long as the wealth flows to the top, they will.