Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: The Impact of the NFL's CTE Admission

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMarch 16, 2016

CHICAGO, IL- JANUARY 03: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions during the third quarter of a game against the Chicago Bears on January 3, 2016 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

1. Players retiring early is no longer a fluke

Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji semi-retired Monday. He's just 29. 

He joins a growing list of players who have recently retired with years left in the gas tank—names like Calvin JohnsonJason Worilds, Marshawn Lynch and Jerod Mayo. There was Jake Locker. There was Chris Borland and Justin Smith and Patrick Willis and Anthony Davis and seemingly all the rest of the Jim Harbaugh 49ers.

Borland is the poster boy for the early retirements, the budding superstar who called it quits after his first NFL season and said his leaving the game was specifically a pre-emptive strike to avoid long-term health issues. But not every situation has been analogous to Borland's. Raji said he will sit out 2016, but he didn't rule out a return and refuted any notion that his decision to semi-retire was about long-term health concerns.

No, not every case is the same, but what we are seeing can no longer be called a fluke. The earlier retirement of players is a trend.

The question is why? I was prepared to answer one way, but then I spoke to former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

Finley suffered a spinal cord injury in 2013, and his fight back from that was brave and instructive. The injury taught Finley two important points. First, health is fragile. Second, all of the work he did as a player preparing for the day when he stopped playing football paid off, because in retirement, he is financially secure. 

To Finley, and to other players I've spoken to, it isn't as simple as players leaving early because of health concerns. There's more.

"It's 50-50," Finley said. "I think it's partly because of health, but other guys feel they're being undervalued in terms of contracts and pay and are deciding it's not worth the risk to keep playing."

Some guys are leaving due to worries about head trauma. Some guys are leaving because they are mid-level players, not stars, and the money that level makes isn't worth the risk. And some guys are leaving because of a complicated mix of the two.

Players are more aware of what's happening to their mind and bodies. They know about CTE. So when they get a low offer from a team or teams, they decide, "You know what? Screw this. It's not worth it any longer." And they bounce.

"If you had quarterbacks making the league minimum or even $3 or $4 million a year, and they were 29 or 30, you'd see a lot of them retire, too," Finley said.

Finley and others also make it clear that they know several million dollars per year is a lot of money to the average person. But in terms of NFL dollars, and compared to the risk to the body, it's not a lot of cash.

All of this is happening at what is one of the more transformational moments in the history of the NFL. The NFL's leading health and safety officer, Jeff Miller, admitted Monday to a Congressional panel there was a link between football-related head trauma and CTE. It was the first time the NFL has admitted this.

On Tuesday, the league confirmed in a statement that Miller's comments "accurately reflect the view of the NFL."

This admission is as significant a turning point in the sport's history as the AFL-NFL merger or the television boom. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but it's not. For decades, the NFL has denied this connection and attacked anyone who dared challenge it.

Now, this admission will have reverberations up and down the sport, from the professional level down to Pop Warner. What was already happening—players taking longer looks at how football would impact their post-NFL lives, parents debating whether to let their kids play football in the first place—will intensify.

Players like Megatron or even Raji could have easily played two or three more years. It's possible Raji plays again, but my guess is that he won't. Whether it's strictly for health reasons, for money or both, something is happening in the sport right now that's different from anything I've ever seen in nearly three decades of covering the NFL.

Until now, players rarely walked away. They were shoved out the door. Pushed aside like a sack of potatoes. Few of them are being pushed now. They're leaving voluntarily.

One veteran player who is a free agent told me one of the problems is there's no longer an NFL middle class. "You're either getting a big deal, a rookie deal or nothing," he said.

There is a belief among some veterans that the last CBA all but eliminated mid-level salaries. Like I said, it's complicated.

One thing that's certain is the early retirements won't end anytime soon.

All of this, I think, is just the beginning.

2. The NFL still isn't preparing players for life after football

This was an interesting and poignant quote from Finley: "The main thing I'm seeing is, in my opinion, the NFL doesn't take care of its players. The NFL still doesn't do enough to teach guys about what life will be like after football. I had a great wife who helped prepare me, but the NFL didn't help. I don't think a lot of guys are getting that help. That's the main message that I wanted to say. The NFL needs to help players more than they are now."

3. Browns doing zippo in free agency is right thing to do

This is dangerous to state. It's possibly foolish. It's risky as hell. But here goes:

The Browns are doing well in free agency.

I know, I know. Crazy talk. So, let me explain.

This is not a great free-agent class. It's just not, and what I like about what the Browns are doing—which differs from what they did in the past—is they aren't signing players just to look involved. Or to please the media. Or to please the fans.

They are, for the first time in a long time, building a team without regard to how it looks to anyone else. They are being...smart. Calculating.

I've called the Browns smart before, and it was a disaster. This is a team that drafted Johnny Manziel based on the opinions of a homeless dude.

The Browns drafted Trent Richardson. They gave big money to a washed-up Dwayne Bowe. They did so many incredibly dumb things, some of them designed to create a splash instead of a good team, that it's refreshing to see them now being far more measured.

There's definitely another side to this. Maybe the Browns are being a little too cautious and possibly even shady in free agency. Saying they should be aggressive is a perfectly reasonable belief.

But one of the great truisms of professional sports is that sometimes the best deals are the ones not made. This is what the Browns are avoiding now. They are also dumping players who played well for them, but Cleveland had three wins last year. So maybe it's time to build completely from scratch.

The Browns are easy to mock because they've been, well, the Browns. Also, the current front office is full of analytics guys, which makes it an easy target in a league that has yet to fully embrace analytics.

But what they're doing is like what New England or Green Bay has done. While the Cleveland franchise is as far away from those teams as Earth is to Alpha Centaurithough at Warp 9, such a trip would be only minutes, but I digressthe principle is still a viable one. Build through the draft, invest sparingly in free agency and get rid of players who don't help the team win.

It's is a cold approach. It can be a frustrating one for fans as well. But it's the right one.

(Damn, can't believe I wrote the Browns are doing something right.)

4. On the other hand...

One last thing on the Browns. There's a good chance they will take a quarterback in the first round of this year's draft. That would put them in unprecedented territory, as ESPN's Trey Wingo tweeted:

5. Manning or Brady?

It's the eternal pain-in-the-ass question that should no longer be a question but inexplicably remains one. It's not even close. Brady is better by any measure. But for those still confused, this video helps detail why this question should forever be put to rest:

6. The Duke

There's an interesting short movie out soon called The Duke, based on the fictional memoir of J.P. Duke. It's a cool movie—short, powerful, entertaining—though maybe cool isn't the word. Striking is more the word. The movie basically explores the life of a football player suffering from serious concussion issues.

It's one of a few recent movies (Concussion being another) that have tried to show in great detail what it's like to be concussed while also trying to function as a normal human being. In the coming years, we will see more movies like this one. Because concussions and the CTE issue won't go away.

7. The first draft

From NFL guru Gil Brandt:

The point isn't about Bubba Smith, though he would become an awesome football player and even more famous as an actor in the Police Academy movies.

The point is this is the 50th year of the draft as we know it today.

8. Could Ryan Fitzpatrick retire?

RICH SCHULTZ/Associated Press

I want to make this clear: I think quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will play in the NFL next season. Returning to the Jets or going to Denver are among the more logical possibilities. But I will add that one player who knows Fitzpatrick well told me he wouldn't be shocked if he retires.

The player says Fitzpatrick has saved up more than enough money, and while football is his passion, "Ryan doesn't live and die with it."

Translation: He went to Harvard. There's other stuff he can do.

Again, I think Fitzpatrick will play next year, but the notion of him retiring isn't a crazy one.

9. Philly media skewers DeMarco Murray

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Well, this was interesting. Harsh, but interesting. And accurate.

From everything I've heard from the Eagles locker room about Murray, his stint there was a disaster for two reasons: (1) Chip Kelly and (2) Murray himself. Kelly was a disaster as Eagles coach and general manager. By now, we all know what happened. Kelly put a square peg in a round running back hole with Murray.

Then Murray rightfully complained. He should have. But he did go too far. That part is also true. He crossed the line from having a legitimate complaint to being a whiner.

It will be worth watching how this unfolds in Tennessee. What happens when things get tough? Will the whining continue with the Titans?

10. Jay Cutler's wife talks

Personally, I absolutely love this kind of stuff. We rarely see these kinds of details about the lives of athletes. They are normally so guarded and scripted. This book isn't.

One thing Kristin Cavallari will absolutely get destroyed on, though, is complaining about the lack of decent estheticians in Chicago. She's forced—gulp—to trim her own eyebrows. This comes off as a 1 percenter talking about how he can't find a decent housekeeper.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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