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Andrew Luck May Only Be the Beginning If NFL Doesn't Address Its Culture Problem

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 27, 2019

Andrew Luck, quarterback de los Colts de Indianápolis, abandona el terreno tras un encuentro de pretemporada ante los Bears de Chicago, el sábado 24 de agosto de 2019 (AP foto/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The next player who decides to retire early like Andrew Luck may already be in the NFL.

Perhaps it's Kyler Murray, who could leap into baseball's open arms after his first six-sack Sunday afternoon. Or Daniel Jones, who has already seen the worst and best of Big Apple hysteria before throwing his first meaningful pass. Or Marcus Mariota, physically battered after just a handful of seasons. 

Maybe it's one of the guys who doesn't fit the mold: too much of a "diva," too intellectual, too political. Or another beat-up player like Trent Williams, suspicious of his team's medical staff. Or a Jadeveon Clowney trapped in franchise-tag limbo. Or any of a dozen star running backs who are asked to absorb hundreds of blows per year at discount prices.

Whoever they may be, more NFL stars are going to weigh the pain of their many injuries, the weariness of constant rehab and the pressure and criticism they face against their long-term happiness and the contents of their bank accounts and make the same decision Luck just made.

The physical and emotional toll professional football places on its players will chase more bright young stars from the game if the NFL doesn't make its culture more welcoming, health-oriented and supportive.

Luck told reporters on Saturday that he retired due to multiple injuries, the grueling rehab process and a desire to spend more time with his family. As a private individual with varied off-field interests, Luck also struggled with the "fishbowl" nature of NFL fame, as Stephen Holder reported last week for The Athletic. 

Injuries will always be part of the game. And football is an entertainment industry, so the fame is pretty much the point. But that doesn't mean that nothing can be done to make players more comfortable, physically and mentally, about the prospect of sacrificing their bodies and privacy for our weekly entertainment. 

Here are some of the things the NFL can do to improve its workplace culture and deal with what could blossom into a retention problem. 

   

Scrap the 18-game season: Take it off the negotiating table for the next CBA and stop talking about it forever. An 18-game season would result in players contemplating retirement at age 24.

Putting the expanded schedule to rest would also send players a powerful symbolic message: We know what you are going through and don't want to make things even harder just for money.

   

Shrink preseason down to nothingness: It's not just about the injuries, though the injuries and wear-and-tear are great reasons to curtail the preseason. It's also about the extra travel and the weeks of pressure and speculation about whether the starters are playing, whether they should play, why they aren't playing and so forth. Two preseason games would be adequate. One or zero might well be ideal.

   

Stop testing for cannabis: Millions of Americans can now legally use cannabis products as painkillers or to treat anxiety. NFL players, most of whom need safe painkillers and anxiety relief more than your average sportswriter or insurance salesperson, cannot. Updating its antiquated cannabis policy is something the NFL could do tomorrow, for zero dollars, which would immediately make league culture more player friendly.

   

Guarantee salaries: Luck walked away from a lot of guaranteed money, but most players won't retire with two guaranteed years left on their contracts. Unfortunately, most NFL contracts offer nothing but uncertainty after the first year; players who underperform are asked to take pay cuts or become cap casualties, while players who overperform must decide whether it's worth making unpopular demands to get a little more while they can. This one is a bit of a pipe dream, but other leagues somehow manage to guarantee their player contracts and make out just fine. 

   

Reform the team medical departments: Trent Williams' career is in limbo because of his issues with Washington's medical staff. The prevailing culture around the NFL is to shower players with painkillers and get them on the field as soon as possible. Teams need to offer better reassurances to players that the doctor who says it's only a bone bruise is really acting in the player's best interests. 

   

Re-educate the hardline coaches: Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills articulated his sociopolitical concerns about the NFL's corporate partnership with Jay-Z last week, and Dolphins coach Brian Flores responded by playing a workforce block of Jay-Z over the practice loudspeakers and sending Stills a not so thinly veiled message through the media about his work habits. That's the kind of management that would send a typical employee rushing to update their LinkedIn profile. (Flores at least expressed sympathy for Stills' point of view.) Imagine how the oldest of the old-school coaches respond to young players these days with their politics, video games, avocado toast, etc.

There's a difference between setting high expectations for the good of the team and being the sort of person who, say, leaves the baby delivery room before the umbilical cord is cut to attend a routine meeting. Coaches need to rethink some of the messages they send, because if they demand that players choose between the game and their families or their values, they will discover to their tough-guy dismay that more players than ever are ready to make the correct choice.  

   

End "sleepaway" training camps: Most teams now hold training camp at their year-round headquarters. But many teams still travel to Our Lady of the Countryside College, where players sleep in dormitories (or extended-stay hotels, in some cases) for weeks. Facilities are often somewhere between rustic and ridiculous: One team I once covered on a college campus placed its ice baths out in the open next to a service-entrance driveway. This was the early 2010s, not 1963.

Sleepaway training camps often don't provide the kind of facilities that professional adult football players usually require.
Sleepaway training camps often don't provide the kind of facilities that professional adult football players usually require.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Asking professionals to live like fraternity pledges for a month is bad for the aching backs of 275-pound athletes and worse for the dignity of grown men separated from their families for no practical reason. Moving all training camps to team headquarters is another little thing the NFL can do to make the grind just a little more manageable for players.  

   

Better facilities: Speaking of headquarters, most NFL teams now have pretty good facilities (there are exceptions), but even the best are usually still rather spartan, like high-end office blocks on a corporate campus with some fields behind them. Meanwhile, colleges build palaces for their unpaid athlete-employees, and corporate culture in other fields has changed from cubicles and stale coffee to smoothies and foosball tables. NFL players are expected to all but live at the team headquarters; perhaps the teams should make headquarters feel more like home.

Some of these changes would cost NFL owners a lot of money, some would cost almost nothing. Few would have any impact on the fan experience or the quality of play. All of them would make it easier for players to cope with their aches and pains while cutting down on the demands on their time and privacy. 

The wannabe tough guys who criticized Luck this weekend for retiring can scoff at all this. Suck it up, Millennial buttercups. Players in the old days didn't expect this sort of kid-glove treatment. True, but players in the old days didn't know about CTE or understand the risks of painkiller habituation. They weren't bombarded 24/7/365 with media and fan adulation/speculation/criticism on their phones and their wives'/parents' phones. And few were paid set-for-life money in their 20s, because in the old days the owners kept it all. 

Times have changed, but the NFL hasn't changed quickly enough. To keep players like Luck from retiring young, the league must meet players halfway on the things that really matter. If the NFL doesn't figure that out soon, we'll see many more early retirements and fewer great players to root for on the field. 

          

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@MikeTanier.

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