What Effect Will Early NFL Retirements Have On the College Game?

Even though football season is but a few months away, there are some incredibly intriguing events taking place that could have lasting effects on America’s most popular sport. If you’ve been under a rock the last three months you may not have a clue as to what I’m talking about. But, for the purpose of this piece, I’ll assume you have some knowledge of the most recent current events.

The most recent current event I am speaking of is player safety and the preventative measures some players are doing to stave off permanent injury. Within the last six to eight years, there have been numerous cases in which retired NFL players are seeking just compensation for irreparable brain injuries (click here for list of players). Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease usually suffered by athletes who have experienced repeated blows to the head throughout a playing career, has garnered loads of attention because of its connection with diminished quality of life, including erratic and sometimes deadly behaviors. Players now have taken a vested interest in what developments have been discovered through research of CTE and incorporate those findings into their decision making process moving forward with their careers. As a result, there have been a recent string of players retiring at earlier stages in their careers.

Although the average career of an NFL player is three and a half years, this is somewhat unprecedented when you have high-caliber players calling it a career at the apex of their careers. And their rationale for retiring, you ask? Health concerns. Health concerns? Football is one of the most violent contact sports on the planet. A number of these players have been involved with football for at least 15 years. Imagine spending your entire childhood through adolescence to early adulthood conditioning your body for such physical damage and once you’re fortunate enough to make it to the pinnacle of your sport, you site your future health as a reason to stop.

Don’t get me wrong now. I am certainly not condemning these players for preserving their bodies for a life beyond football. I commend them for it. It takes a lot of courage to walk away from something you’ve strived for, for so long. But, I must wonder, when a player was going through all those stages of competitive play and suffered all the punishment, why did it not resonate with them at an earlier stage? Call it youthful ignorance, denial, invincibility complex, whatever- what’s most important is that they’ve chosen their life beyond a dream; something that’s not pondered until one has exhausted mind, body, and soul at an advanced age in the game.

With earlier retirements now becoming more prevalent in recent years, I wonder if this will have an impact on the college game. Imagine, a majority of these players enter the league between 21 and 24 years of age. The prime of their careers, should they be fortunate enough to make it, is between 25-28 years of age (depending on the position of course). So, for an established and impactful player, that’s only four to seven years to make top dollar and set oneself up financially. Now couple the concern of long term health into the equation; it could possibly shorten the career length. Again, it all depends on the position played and level of dependence others have upon them (sad, but true).

Where this can impact the college game is that there could be a petition to lower the eligibility age to play professional football. Because it’s a high impact sport, the earning potential is only best within a certain age range. Therefore, the earlier a player can become eligible, the likelier the player is to make the most of his possible earning potential. Although this scenario is highly unlikely, if this were to come to pass, the college game would suffer dramatically. Top tier talent would not want to risk future earnings to play at the “amateur” level, when there could be millions made at the professional level. As a result, you may have players not going all out, but instead taking it easy to preserve themselves.

Or consider this, eligibility requirements remain the same and players continue to weigh long term health against their playing future and decide to retire before any more damage can be done- where does this leave he NFL? Despite the findings of health related issues associated with football, I know there would still be a line several miles long vying for a chance to play professional football. However, if impactful talent only stayed a mere seven years or so due to health concerns, the turnover would inevitably affect the overall product of the game. Yes there will be an abundance of players to choose from, but will the level of quality be the same? Would fans be privy to a diminished product on the field?

To put a face on this issue, the last two seasons in the NFL saw the departure of tremendous talents calling it a career, in some cases far too soon. Patrick Willis, LB for the San Francisco 49ers, 30 years old, hung up his cleats. Rookie Chris Borland (2014), LB for these same 49ers, 25years old, calls it a career after one professional season. Marshawn Lynch, RB for the Seattle Seahawks, 29 years old, hangs them up. Most recently, WR Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, 30 years old, retired due to concerns of his long term health. All these players mentioned were either in their prime, or just barely coming out of it. With the exception of Chris Borland, these players are quite difficult to replace. However, teams have and will continue to do so. But, will the replacement be anything like the predecessor?

It’s a very interesting time in the realm of collegiate and professional football. There will be lines drawn in the sand in regard to player safety and ultimately, the quality of life during or after a player’s career has ended. Question is, can we set aside our passion for compassion for these men risking life and limb, literally, for a sport that’s as taxing as it is exhilarating? We’ll just have to wait and see.