A sport that could use a good buckin' up got exactly what it didn't need Saturday night when Andrew Luck abruptly brought his illustrious but injury-ravaged football career to an end.
The news was supposed to keep until Sunday, well after his Indianapolis Colts had played a pre-season game against the Colts at home Saturday night. It leaked during the fray, as all things do in this digital age and when the news started popping up on the cell phones of the assembled gaggle in the seats, they did what drunk, thoughtless fans do--they booed as Luck walked off the field, their only thought being what this meant to their club or fantasy football prospects.
It's not the first time the smartest guy in the room got such disrespect and it won't be the last. And, it's not the final time we'll talk about the merits of a game that is rapidly becoming the one sport you want someone else's kid to play, not yours.
People have their own reasons for their chosen career paths. Football promises glory and riches, the NFL sold to us over the decades as America's game played by American men who go to war to blitz and pillage, where on any given Sunday you may see a thrilling game as the action frequently stops so a mangled body can be dragged to the sidelines or, if truly disabled, hauled away on a meat wagon. NFL Films put the highlights to music for decades, a priceless marketing tool that sold the hits, mayhem and carnage as simply a part of the game its participants willingly accepted.
Not so much any more.
Deadspin's Drew Magary reminds us of those who took the early curtain before Luck, dating back to Jim Brown who called it a career after his Browns lost to the Packers in the 1966 NFL title game. Why would a guy at the peak decide to bail NOW, we asked as fans, Brown left with his limbs and brain intact, no mean feat considering the game's brutality at the time--yes, it was even worse back then, with crappier gear and rules that allowed all manner of shifty on-field comportment--an era when a guy who was out cold was described on-air by network announcers as merely being "shaken up."
Others would follow: Gale Sayers. Barry Sanders. Calvin Johnson. Tiki Barber. Robert Smith. They walked away quietly in most cases but Wisconsin standout. and first round 49er draft pick Chris Borland famously cited health reasons fueling his decision to bail after just one year in the pros. That's it, he said. Check please.
"Try to think of another sport," Magary writes, "that has to deal with players not wanting to play it. This is only happening in the NFL where all of the rule tweaks and happy penalty flag barrages have not and will not curtail that exodus." And those changes have the hard core/elderly fan grousing forever about how the game "isn't football anymore, dammit." Magary says teams no longer just check a potential player's speed and skills--they plumb between the ears, too, to answer the question, "Are you too smart or rational to play this game?"
Critics are taking Luck to task for the timing of his decision--one that leaves his team in a QB lurch. Others say he's being typically millennial, too soft and afraid of pain/hard work to collect a paycheck most fans would give a body part to endorse.
No, Luck isn't Brett Favre who left it all on the field in part to prove to he was as tough as hs father Irv hoped he could be, even after said dad died. That's the kind of guy the league could almost always rely on landing.
What it's getting is more Andrew Lucks. More Chris Borlands. "They do NOT want people who fully understand just who and what they are giving their bodies over to," Magary says, "And they have cultivated a fan and media culture that looks down pretty much on any player who does not meet those insane criteria" of being all-in or too oblivious to realize what's going on.
The farce that is the pre-season is living, month-long proof of the game's war within itself: it's a sport too dangerous to practice in a meaningful way that leaves players ready for actual game conditions, one that precludes the use of high-priced regulars in exhibitions for fear they'll get mangled during meaningless frays (for which said owners are NOT shy about charging full-boat ticket prices for).
"No one else besides the NFL," says Magary, "is stupid enough to keep engineering ways to sustain an unsustainable game." Is it stupid, or arrogance brought on by the realization that, for every Luck, Borland or Brown there's someone else willing to slap on the gear and give the sport a try and plenty of fans willing to buy seats in person or dial in at home to watch them play it? For all the angst and tooth gnashing early retirements generate, the bottom line remains brilliantly green--eight billion dollars in national revenue alone that the 32 teams evenly split. The bulk of that cash comes from TV revenue that betrays the lie that we aren't watching the NFL the way we used to. Networks don't pony up that kinda cash because they aren't getting returns.
Fact is, despite the controversy and the bad pub, the injuries and the risk of early death, we enjoy what we see every Sunday. And we're just fine with the toll it exacts, so long as it's someone else's kid doing it.