John Urschel was brave to play to play football, and he was brave Thursday morning when he informed the Baltimore Ravens he planned to retire. It takes courage to understand the physical risks associated with the game and accept them anyway, and it takes courage to walk away from an offensive line career so many would envy. It’s hard to put your body through the equivalent of car wrecks, and it’s hard not to conform to expectation. For someone as talented as Urschel, it was a bold choice to play football and it is bold to stop playing.
Urschel deserves credit for making an informed decision he believed to be best for him and his interests. The same can be said of every NFL player who reports to training camp this week. It’s smart to stop playing football, and Urschel is nothing if not a smart man — he is an MIT mathematics PhD student whose work has been published. That doesn’t make it dumb to keep playing football, only dumb to do so while ignorant of the risks.
Urschel’s retirement signals the continuation, or perhaps the acceleration, of a trend. A trickle of young players have voluntarily quit the game, most famously linebacker Chris Borland in 2015, and it may soon turn into a stream. Walking away from the NFL will — and should — become more common as research stacks up and information spreads about head trauma inherent to football.
Urschel has made no public comment regarding his retirement. It’s easy to assume Urschel was influenced by the study, released Tuesday, that 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players showed the degenerative brain disease CTE. But it would be hard to believe those findings would have surprised Urschel, or any other football with the slightest awareness of what damage playing the sport invites.
There is a harrowing physical cost to playing in the NFL, but there are also rewards, beyond how much it pays. A player deciding the reward is worth the cost is no more or less deserving of praise than a player who decides it is not and retires.
Playing football provides a specific concoction of feelings unavailable elsewhere — the rush of performing before raucous crowds, the exhilaration of confronting and issuing sanctioned violence, the camaraderie of doing it with teammates. If you believe those sensations are unworthy because they are fleeting, I have bad news about every other one of life’s experiences. It’s valid to value what football produces over long-term health. It’s not stupid to conclude it’s worth it. Urschel understood that, too.
“I play because I love the game,” Urschel wrote for The Players Tribune in 2015, after Borland retired. “I love hitting people. There’s a rush you get when you go out on the field, lay everything on the line and physically dominate the player across from you. This is a feeling I’m (for lack of a better word) addicted to, and I’m hard-pressed to find anywhere else. My teammates, friends and family can attest to this: When I go too long without physical contact I’m not a pleasant person to be around. This is why, every offseason, I train in kickboxing and wrestling in addition to my lifting, running and position-specific drill work. I’ve fallen in love with the sport of football and the physical contact associated with it.”
Urschel, again, is not some Neanderthal. His homepage on MIT’s website includes this line: “Right now, I spend most of my time thinking about discrete Schrödinger operators, high dimensional data compression, algebraic multigrid, and Voronoi diagrams.”
Urschel, in an HBO interview, called his love for football “irrational.” That may be the wrong word. There is cost, for some people, to not playing football: the absence of what it brings. The recent CTE study may have pushed Urschel to realize the calculus no longer made it worthwhile for him. But at one point, it was.
This is not meant as a full-throated defense of football. Mounting evidence suggests it destroys brains, and despite the NFL’s public-relations efforts, it cannot be changed in a manner that would make it both recognizable and safe. Some players may feel financially trapped in the NFL, especially players from impoverished backgrounds whose college experience consisted of football practice and the minimal amount of academic rigor to keep them eligible. That surely exists, and it is tragic.
In the larger picture, spinning Urschel’s retirement into a prediction of the NFL’s demise would be an overreaction and misread of what makes the NFL successful in the first place. A dwindling pool of participants will hurt the quality of play, but people aren’t obsessed with the NFL because of the artfulness of the product. The NFL is a violent spectacle that’s easy to gamble on. It may not be a happy reflection on the American public, but it’s true. The quality of NFL games has already fallen in recent seasons. It dominates culture no less.
Before long, likely during this training camp, another NFL player will join Urschel in early retirement. His decision will not signal a spiral for the NFL, either. It will prove players have enough information to make sound choices for their health, just as they should. Give the majority of players who keep playing enough credit to assume they’re making an informed choice, too, not out of ignorance, but preference, even if it seems crazy. Urschel did something worthy Thursday, but as he understood, so do the players he’s leaving behind.
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