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Like much of sports-loving America I remain shocked by the retirement of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. He was one of the poster boys for the National Football League. He was the reigning Comeback Player of the Year. He was a four-time All-Pro selection. He was one of the best players and a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate. He was destined, it seemed, to one day be a Super Bowl champion and in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But as Luck, only age 29, made his announcement, it was evident that his soul was not in it any longer. He talked about the ravages to his body in just six seasons. The breath of those injuries is mind-boggling: torn cartilage in two ribs; partially torn abdomen; lacerated kidney that left him urinating blood; at least one concussion; torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, which cost him a full season; and this mysterious calf/ankle issue that ultimately led to Luck’s retirement.
Yes football, at any level, is a brutal and relentless collision sport, where bodies are hurled like human missiles. After years of dodging the magnitude of what football does to its players, there is at least some acknowledgement of the dangers and permanent damage thanks to studies and lawsuits.
That is because football has an unapologetic gladiator mentality, except for the fact these men and boys are not fighting any war, they are fighting each other over a piece of pigskin filled with air.
I wanted that mythological heroism badly, me a fatherless only child, so I dove head-first into what football represented when I was eight or nine. We boys played with and without equipment or pads. We played at lunch time in our grade school courtyard and we played on the weekends in our ‘hoods. We tackled each other on concrete, we smashed each other into fences, poles, even parked cars.
Football, more than any other sport, was our rites-of-passage into manhood. It did not matter if you dislocated a shoulder (I did many times), broke a nose, had teeth knocked out, or were bleeding in some way; to be a boy, a man, as we were taught and as we policed each other, was to get up, immediately, for fear of being called some horrible sexist or homophobic word.
I also lived vicariously through what I watched on television every fall and winter weekend for years, and I got tremendous pleasure in seeing body blows inflicted at the college and pro ranks. I truly believed that this was what I had to do, to punish others, to be able to absorb punishment as well.
This is because toxic manhood is at the root of football, at every level. Toxic manhood is about violence, domination, hurting and destroying others at any cost. Toxic manhood is about power and privilege, and who you can exercise that power and privilege over. No American sport symbolizes the ugly excesses of toxic manhood the way football does.
Even when I was first challenged by women about my sexism as a much younger man, I never considered giving up my love of football. Here I was digesting bell hooks, Eve Ensler, Gloria Steinem, Audre Lorde, and other women writers while gleefully cheering on football violence and toxic manhood for several more years. Because what comes with giving up any form of toxic manhood is the real fear within us boys and men of being called, like Andrew Luck, a quitter, a sell-out, of being booed for daring to march to your own beat.
But this shifted dramatically for me a few years back while flying a cross-country trip. I met certain legendary players from a certain legendary pro football team, in the cramped coach section. They were uncomfortable, and most could barely sit, stand, or walk without great pain. I thought of the countless stories of players with memory loss, of the growing number of former players who became prone to wild mood swings—one moment at peace, the next minute screaming and fighting. It likewise made me think of the numerous players, after their careers were over, who have committed suicide, arguably because of the head traumas they suffered.
This is why Andrew Luck’s press conference was both difficult to watch and a revelation. Here was a young man clearly tormented about what he had been taught and done much of his life, and he was rejecting it. He simply could not take any of it any longer. Not only is Luck determined to have a pain-free life, to be available to his wife and possible future children, but his action and words say to me he also wants to be a very different kind of man, that he was, boldly, rejecting toxic manhood as represented by football.
My hope is that because of Andrew Luck’s celebrity status and fame, he will be seen, over time, as an example. That it is okay for men and boys to cry, to be vulnerable, to say they, we, are hurting, that it is okay to walk away from things that are harmful to us, to others, without being publicly ridiculed for it.
It is my hope that Luck’s gutsy move will one day also be a reminder to parents, coaches, boosters, scouts, sponsors, and others who have pushed so many of these players, from boys to men, without any regard for their long term health, and without any regard for how they, we, define manhood.
Just like it took Muhammad Ali an incredible amount of courage to say he was not going to fight in the Vietnam War, that he was going to reject manhood and violence in that way, I feel it is actually heroic of Andrew Luck to remove himself from something that he has clearly loved his entire life, but that he realizes now has absolutely nothing to do with the kind of man he is, or the kind of man he hopes to be.
Kevin Powell is a civil and human rights activist, and author of 13 books including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. An upcoming book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur, the global pop culture and hip-hop icon. You can email Kevin: email@example.com