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Early retirements won’t faze NFL until rookies start saying “no thanks”


There’s a perception that more and more NFL players are retiring prematurely. The reality is that the media generally is now paying much more attention to retirements that are perceived to come too soon, given the possibility that retirement decisions are now influenced in whole or in part by concerns regarding long-term brain injuries.

From the NFL’s perspective, true concern will arise only if a rash of high-profile players on the front end of their careers begins to opt out.

Former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland continues to be the only big-name draft pick who retired during his rookie contract, calling it quits a year into what appeared to be a promising career. Only if multiple other first-round, second-round, or third-round picks start walking away early -- or opting out of the draft pool before the selection process begins -- will the NFL become genuinely worried.

In 20 days, the NFL will commence the process of drafting more than 250 willing participants in pro football, all of whom know or should know more about the risks of playing football better than any group of players that ever has entered the NFL. Once the draft ends (actually, before it does), the land rush for another 600 or so undrafted free agents will begin, with even hundreds more hoping and praying and begging for a chance to join a 90-man roster and compete for one of 53 opening-day jobs on the league’s 32 teams.

That’s 1,696 total positions to fill. And for each of the men who held one of those jobs in one year and who decide not to continue the next, there won’t be only one immediately-ready replacement. There will be 20.

Some think it’s only a matter of time before the flood of young players clamoring for NFL employment shrinks. To believe that is to ignore the unique biology of men in their early 20s. They still believe there’s a chance they’ll never die and they’ll always be the same person that they are right now. It’s a defect, hard wired into the human DNA, that doesn’t subside until at least age 25.

So even as (possibly) more players who reach and pass 30 are deciding to walk away, far more are ready to pounce on the available openings.

While comprehensive data isn’t readily available, early retirement isn’t a new phenomenon. Linking early retirement to health concerns is, sort of.

Fifteen years ago, Robert Smith retired at age 28, only eight years into his NFL career. And he specifically expressed concerns about the impact of football on his long-term health. But the media did not collectively rise up and predict doom and/or gloom for the NFL.

Other high-profile early retirements triggered not a single broader discussion about what it means for football, from stars like Barry Sanders and Jim Brown to the many mid-level-to-low-level guys who simply stopped playing and were never really noticed or missed because the media was: (1) much smaller at the time; and (2) not looking to push that specific narrative.

Plenty of stars have been forced out prematurely over the years due to injury. Gale Sayers and Joe Namath had knee injuries that derailed their careers. Terrell Davis would have been a sure-fire Hall of Famer but for a knee injury that ended his career far sooner than he would have liked. Neck problems drove out Sterling Sharpe and Michael Irvin before they wanted to leave. And it was chronic back trouble that forced Troy Aikman to retire at 34.

Has there ever been a story line that serious orthopedic injuries are stripping the NFL of its best talent? Or has the NFL instead simply plugged in the next wave of willing and able players, trudging ahead with new stars necessarily emerging in the wake of those who exited the sport?

While there indeed may be more players who instead of being willing but not able are able but not willing, the supply-and-demand phenomenon hasn’t changed -- and won’t change -- until first-round picks begin walking out to the middle of the stage for their bear hug from the Commissioner, stop at the last minute, shake his hand, and turn and walk away.