Johnny Knox's Retirement Reminds Us NFL Players Risk It All for Entertainment
As former Chicago Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox lay on the ground back in 2011, I distinctly remember discussing with a friend of mine my concerns that he might never play again, and his recent retirement confirmed those fears.
According to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, the Bears released Knox on Tuesday. He retired from the game shortly thereafter (h/t Sean Jensen, Chicago Sun-Times), never able to fully physically or mentally recover from the events that took place.
Injuries are—and forever will be—part of the game of football. I get that. But what I don't get is that I still see people indiscriminately celebrating big hits these days as if they had personal beef with the player on the ground.
ESPN canceled Monday Night Countdown's "Jacked Up" segment for a reason, folks.
Don't get me wrong, I love when a hard, clean tackle dislodges the ball from the hands of a receiver. There is no purer and potentially game-saving play in the sport, and I fully believe that those types of hits can and should remain in the NFL as long as rule and safety reform continues.
Yet when I see a player down on the field with a concussion—I have suffered at least three, myself—or with some other serious injury, my stomach can't help but turn.
Knox's injury remains one of the most grisly sights that I have ever seen on a football field:
Knox suffered a fractured vertebra on the play and required surgery to stabilize the broken bone. In other words, the loose vertebra threatened his spinal cord. Fortunately, he retained all sensation and function in his limbs, something that is no guarantee following such an injury.
However, that did not prove to be enough to allow him to continue his career as an NFL athlete, and as such, he will now need to find another means to support himself, his wife and his two children. When you have defined yourself by your sport for years—maybe even decades—that is no easy task.
Taking into account player safety, revenue generated, season lengths and roster sizes, which of the four major sports' average annual player salaries represents the biggest mismatch?
The argument that NFL players know what they are getting themselves into and make a lot of money as compensation is a stale one, and I want to short-circuit that argument right now.
Yes, many superstars make yearly salaries that neither you nor I can comprehend. However, this report from the approximate time of Knox's injury shows that although football is far and away the most dangerous of them all, the average annual income of an NFL athlete is the lowest of the four major American sports.
Admittedly, it is still $1.9 million. Nevertheless, the word "average" implies that roughly half of players make less.
Some make much less.
The minimum salary for rookies—who are just as at-risk as veterans—is $375,000.
Again, I know $375,000 is a lot of money, but most players don't "make it" in the league, only lasting a season or two. Countless others are cut every year, and after taxes, $375k does not amount to much in the grand scheme of things if you are watching the next season from home.
From a business standpoint, no one can blame the Bears for making the move they did. The once promising Knox probably will never be the same.
That is my point.
Every time NFL players take a snap, they are putting their livelihoods and well-being at stake for our entertainment. I'm not talking about hamstring strains here. I'm talking about serious, life-changing injuries—and sometimes life-threatening ones—in every sense of the word.
What good is money if you wake up every day with a debilitating headache? Jahvid Best feels better and wants to return to the field—of course he does—but he cannot find a doctor who feels comfortable clearing him due to the fact that he has suffered four concussions in three years.
What if you never make it through the gauntlet that is college football? Former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand's life became an inspirational story for countless others, but it only did so after he suffered a broken neck during a kickoff that left him paralyzed.
Again, I fully understand that injuries are not going anywhere. I also understand that a utopian NFL—one where all football-dislodging hits are clean—is never going to be realized.
However, the yawning and eye-rolling that is sometimes the reaction to the newest NFL safety regulations needs to stop.
Yes, the required knee and thigh pads next year might take one one-hundredth of a step out of a receiver's speed. Yet ask any player who just missed an entire season with a torn ACL if they would wear them in hopes of maybe preventing future injuries—even though they won't deter similar serious injury—and the responses would unanimously be "yes."
The problem is, such a mentality is reactionary, and it is still too little. We need to be proactive to keep the sport alive.
No one wants to see football die. I love this game as much as any other fan, and I don't want it to go anywhere, either—one of reasons I hope to conduct concussion research once my level of training and opportunity intersect.
Unfortunately, there is a long way to go before the NFL and its medical team satisfactorily addresses the issues at hand, and the effectiveness of the way the league has handled changes so far continues to be debated daily.
At present, some of the problems at hand seem to have no solution, and some might never be solved. I frequently spend time pondering potential changes, and I almost invariably end up at a complete loss. However, I can conclude that it will take time as well as numerous rule revisions, retractions and re-revisions.
That said, it needs to happen, and I definitely believe a safe game will come to pass soon, even if it means we have to put up with a few years of flagged clean hits and un-flagged dirty ones.
So, let's be patient, okay?
Oh, and think twice the next time you want to jump out of your seat when you see a player get leveled.
That's a person out there.
Dave Siebert is a medical/injury Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report who will graduate from medical school in June. He plans to specialize in both Family Medicine and Primary Care (non-operative) Sports Medicine.
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