Sports view: NFL players retiring young

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz


Father time is undefeated, and by all accounts will remain so forever. The calendar catches up to all of us, regardless of what we do in an attempt to forestall the inevitable.

An athlete’s career ends sooner than it does for those of us in other professions. An accountant or a banker can ply their trade for decades. But the average length of an NFL career is little more than three years. That’s why it surprised many observers when five NFL players in their prime retired over the course of a two week period in early March. Why would they retire “early” and leave so much money – in some cases, tens of millions of dollars – on the table?

The reasons for the retirements varied. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, the only player north of 30, said he was concerned about his long term health. Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, a former first round pick, never lived up to expectations and decided to move on. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds elected to devote time to his religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Oakland Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew experienced a drop in production and may have seen the handwriting on the wall.

Willis’ teammate, 24-year old rookie linebacker Chris Borland, tied his retirement directly to concern for potential concussions and head injuries. In making the announcement Borland said, “I’m concerned that if you wait till you have symptoms, it’s too late … There are a lot of unknowns. I can’t claim that X will happen. I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise.”

Bravo to Borland. At least he’s walking away from the sport with – apparently – his health. The same can’t be said for thousands of former NFL players who are a shell of their former selves, unable to walk, talk or function normally after decades playing America’s most popular and most violent sport. No one knows exactly when the physical deterioration first begins but medical science has traced the onset of head injuries in some cases all the way back to Pop Warner football.

For every Chris Borland, there are countless Wes Welkers. Welker has had a prolific NFL career as a slot receiver for four teams. By his own admission, Welker has suffered an estimated dozen concussions over the course of his career. Many more may have gone undiagnosed as Welker adheres to the old time stereotype that as long as a player can remain upright, he should continue playing for his teammates. But repeated concussions, especially the violent type that Welker has most often experienced, are known to lead to early and permanent brain damage.

Should Welker want examples, he need only look at what happened to former teammate Junior Seau. Seau took his own life two years after retiring from the NFL due to the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of chronic brain damage. Like Seau, legions of former players are suffering – and many others are doomed to suffer from – CTE.

Welker is currently a free agent in search of his fifth team. Common sense says he should retire and hope that he can function long enough to enjoy the millions he has earned serving as a human pinball in the NFL. For many players like Welker, that’s easier said than done. Fans have an obsession with football. We revel in its violence even though we know from research, lawsuits and observation the toll it takes on the human body. Most players have a similar obsession with the sport. They have an irresistible urge to play the game they love, one that compensates them far better than anything they can do beyond football.

Perhaps Welker has asked himself the same question Borland posited: “What kind of life do I want to have after my football career is over?” If so, it’s clear the two players answered the question differently. That’s human nature. It’s why some players, like Welker, hang on until they’re told to turn in their uniform. And others, like Borland, choose to live a normal life long after the cheering ends.

In either case, the end of their football career is inevitable. The only unknown is the quality of life that follows.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: Jordan can be reached at


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