By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck shocked the sports world this past weekend by announcing his retirement, right before the beginning of the 2019 NFL regular season. He cited the mental drain from the rehab of his various injuries as a main reason for his retirement. Fans booed him after the game for the abrupt decision.
The NFL is a dangerous sport, and the repercussions of professional football can be life-threatening. Former San Diego Charger Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012 and his autopsy showed he was positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that is shown to cause memory loss, confusion, depression, impaired judgment and dementia. Philadelphia Eagles star Andre Waters, was also found to have CTE after committing suicide.
According to a 2007 study by the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, former pro athletes with three or more concussions were three times as likely to develop clinical depression than those who had never received concussions. They were also five times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.
Luck’s early retirement is nothing out of the ordinary. A growing number of NFL players have retired early for health reasons, especially since the discovery and confirmation of CTE. In 2016, linebackers Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers and A.J. Tarpley of the Bills both retired after a single season due to concerns over their long-term health. Former Chargers linebacker Joshua Perry retired in 2018 at the age of 24 after suffering six concussions in his young NFL career. Former Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski recently ended his career earlier than expected in order to improve his overall physical and mental health.
While these athletes decided to retire to protect their physical health, Luck also cited the mental fatigue of his continuous rehab as a factor in his retirement. Mental health discussions are not new in sports, particularly in pro basketball. Cavs forward Kevin Love recently wrote an op-ed in The Player’s Tribune about his experience with in-game panic attacks, anxiety and depression during the 2018-2019 season, and Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage also wrote for TPT about her difficulties with depression.
Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan, BIG3 star Royce White and Suns guard/forward Kelly Oubre discussed their depression and how it impacted their performances and overall mental state on and off the court. Historically, mental health has been a huge issue within the NFL.
Former Chicago Bears defensive end Corey Wootton can relate to Luck. Wootton played in the league for six years, but suffered major injuries, including torn ligaments in his knee. He rehabbed aggressively, but said it was very difficult to perform at a high level while recovering from injuries and staving off other ones. He also said the rehab took a toll on his mental state.
After spending the 2015 season on injured reserve, Wootton started to lose his passion for playing the game. He said the rehab and the birth of his daughter impacted his decision to call it quits at a young age.
“[The birth of my daughter] changed my life,” Wootton said. “After I had her it put things in perspective for me and that’s ultimately why I decided to retire. Wanted to spend more time with my family.”
In 2014, Derrick Rose, when asked in an interview about his rehab after two major knee injuries, said he was thinking about his future rather than his next basketball game. Rose told the Sun-Times:
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that when I sit out, it’s not because of this year. I’m thinking about long term. I’m thinking about after I’m done with basketball, having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to.
“I don’t want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son’s graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past. Just learning and being smart.’’
Fans watching their favorite teams and players perform often forget the day-to-day reality professional athletes experience. Their routine of constant training and rehab from major and minor injuries, while playing a full regular season all negatively contribute to their mental state. We must remember they are human as well, and we must not neglect the reality of someone’s mental state.
Professional sports leagues have implemented mental health programs to aid their athletes, and we should applaud athletes for taking the proper steps needed to continue to live their everyday lives while doing their jobs on a daily basis. However, we must not criticize them for stepping away from the game out of concern for their own well-being.
Athletes are more than interchangeable entertainers and the topic of mental health is sensitive and serious. Fans must respect current and former athletes that represent our favorite sports leagues, and we must remember that even though they seem to exist in an exalted state of being, they are human as well.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media