On January 14, 2020, Carolina Panthers Linebacker Luke Kuechly released an emotional video announcing his retirement from the NFL. “There’s only one way to play this game,” Kuechly explained while fighting back tears. “Play fast and play physical and play strong. And at this point, I don’t know that I’m able to do that anymore.” Kuechly, who played with the Panthers for eight consecutive seasons and helped the team make it to the Super Bowl in 2015, retired at age 28.
Kuechly’s retirement is one of many recent early departures from the NFL, including Andrew Luck’s surprising withdrawal at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season and Rob Gronkowski’s in March of 2019. This emerging pattern of players retiring under the age of 30 begs the question of how common the trend will become.
One of the biggest reasons these players step down is the threat of long-term health defects accompanying the violence of the sport. A wealth of research has been done linking concussions to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition that results in gradual deterioration of the brain. As a sport laden with concussions, concern for the safety and health of these athletes is more prominent than ever. Now that players have increasing information available to them, they are more aware of the risks they take when stepping onto the field. Kuechly had already suffered three known concussions while Gronkowski suffered two confirmed Grade 1 concussions. If anything, these players should be celebrated not mocked, for making a conscious and responsible decision to sacrifice their careers for the sake of their health.
It’s important to highlight that for Kuechly, Gronkowski, and Luck, they had the choice to walk away from the NFL. Thanks to multi-million-dollar contracts, the future fiscal stability of the league’s top players is bountifully ensured. Gronkowski made $54 million throughout the course of his career, Kuechly $65 million, and Andrew Luck (formerly the highest-paid quarterback in the league) amassed more than $97.1 million during his seven years with the Colts. The abundant income and lavish insurance packages the NFL provides these players produces a lasting cushion of earnings they may rely upon indefinitely.
Pointing out their financial security is in no way meant to take away from the passion these players have for their sport or undermine the difficulty of their decision to step away. Kuechly’s sorrow was evident as the former Linebacker choked up when expressing the anguish of his decision to retire from a game he’s loved and played since fourth grade. However, it is something essential to consider when analyzing the extent to which money contributes to retiring young in the modern era of professional football.
It’s also important to note that Kuechly, Gronkowski, and Luck each reaped lucrative earnings well beyond the average salary of NFL players. The minimum annual salary for a rookie with a one-year contract is $480,000. This pension is by no means lacking; however, the average NFL career length is less than three years, meaning retirement isn’t a luxury for the majority of the league. It’s among the star players buried with loaded paychecks who have the option to discontinue endangering their bodies in a vicious contact sport that we may witness early retirement become a common occurrence in the NFL.