Andrew Luck shocked the football world by abruptly retiring 15 days before the Indianapolis Colts kick their season off, worn down by a series of injuries. He followed on the heels of Rob Gronkowski, who also retired at the peak of the sport before his 30th birthday.
These retirements have raised questions about whether growing awareness of the serious health drawbacks from playing the game, especially concussions, threatens football's future.
But fans needn't fear the game's demise. Football isn't going anywhere. Because the sport has become deeply enmeshed with ideas of American masculinity and because pop culture has for generations cultivated a romanticized vision of football as something heroic, it is likely to remain robust long into the future.
Quickly after the first football game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, the sport became a way for young men to express their masculinity. Football's rise in the popular imagination occurred at the moment when the American frontier was closing and men who didn't join military action against Native Americans in the west were enjoying a peaceful interlude between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Without a war to march off to, and increasingly moving away from physically taxing blue collar jobs, opportunities for middle- and upper-class young men to prove their physical courage in front of other men became elusive. Enter football.
In the 1880s, Walter Camp of Yale University and other members of the game's founding generation finessed the unruly scrum style of American football that grew from the first game in 1869 and installed rules that made the game visibly coherent to spectators, with a clear line of scrimmage and first downs to retain possession. Camp also embedded a sense of morality in the game's mythology, consistently asserting its character-building attributes. In 1918, he even published a code of honor he wanted players to follow.
These efforts proved fruitful. The game took off, first at a handful of eastern colleges in the 1880s, and soon after, nationwide.
Football boosters, along with newspaper and book publishers saw the potential to profit from the burgeoning game. Game coverage and fictional stories of football heroics circulated widely. Camp himself wrote about the sport, perfecting a narrative template that focused on masculine grit and character to counter critics who saw the game as too violent.
In 1908's "The Substitute," Camp's hero was a freshman named Dick Goddard who had not played all year but diligently practiced before being summoned to the field to replace an injured star. Goddard scores the winning touchdown in the big game and is carried off the field by his teammates. "Dick saw all this as in a dream," Camp wrote in a passage before the scene unfolds.
The message to young men was clear: football was the key to turning dreams into reality and becoming a hero. And that proved incredibly alluring.
Hollywood - the ultimate 20th century dream factory - entrenched the glamour of the sport for millions of American boys and men.
In 1925, "The Freshman" opened with a nerdy character named Harold Lamb dreaming of football glory as he is about to leave for college. When he arrives at school, he is bullied by other students. His fortunes change, however, when he joins the football team as the water boy, plays in the big game and scores the winning touchdown. He rides off the field on the shoulders of teammates and secures his love interest afterward.
"The Freshman" was far from unique. Between 1926 and 1941, Hollywood released 89 films featuring college football.
These came in the midst of football's first golden age, as a group of regional teams came together in the aftermath of World War I to form the nationwide professional league that would become the NFL.
At first perceived as a competitor to college football, the two instead came to form a one-two weekend punch of entertainment that captivated young men. Famed Illinois running back Red Grange boosted the NFL's credibility when he immediately joined the Chicago Bears after his final collegiate game in 1925.
But television more than anyone or anything else embedded the NFL in American pop culture in the 1960s. It brought the game to the masses in the growing suburbs.
White suburban dads working in white collar jobs yearned to demonstrate their masculinity, and found an outlet in football fandom, through showing greater knowledge of the game than other men. The opening of a 1968 pamphlet "How To Watch Pro Football on TV," sponsored by a lawn-seed company bluntly conveyed "This book is designed to put your brother-in-law in his place."
Meanwhile, NFL Films produced and aired slow-motion highlights of games on Sunday mornings, targeting an audience of young boys who were to spend the midday re-creating the action in backyards and on the streets, with the soundtrack and narrator playing in their heads. The afternoon would be spent on the couch, of course, watching live games, often with fathers, creating a multigenerational experience and treasured memories affirming football's centrality to male bonding.
The NFL's television ratings grew substantially by the end of the 20th century, dominating living rooms and bars on Sundays and also on Monday nights. Super Bowl Sunday became a national holiday in everything but name, generating historically high television ratings and huge sums for NFL and television networks. Nearly half of U.S. households tuned in to the game in 1982.
Today, football remains among the most lucrative and widely viewed programming in a splintering media landscape; over 98.2 million people watched the Super Bowl in February and last year, NFL games made up 46 of the top 50 rated telecasts. In fact, the centrality of football in American culture may even be strengthening despite players such as Luck, Gronkowski, Calvin Johnson and Patrick Willis questioning its worth by walking away.
More than 60 million Americans will participate in fantasy football leagues this fall, offering up a chance for victory and heroics at the safe distance of statistical abstraction and their phones.
Like their predecessors playing college football in the 1880s, watching football movies in the interwar years and watching NFL games on television in the late 20th century, today's fantasy football participants are incorporating the dream of football into their own lives and exercising a kind of idealized masculinity. By allowing participants a sense of ownership and a chance to display tactical sophistication by setting lineups each week without having to pay players or worry about their long-term health, fantasy leagues are extending the dream of the game while downplaying the real-life risks and harms.
The sense that football presents an avenue for fulfilling one's dreams explains why the sport's future remains secure even as the evidence becomes overwhelming that it poses serious health risks. On Aug. 30, Harvard researchers released a study of 3,500 former NFL players suggesting that playing longer in the NFL and playing certain positions such as running back or linebacker could lead to risks of memory deficits and depression. This follows repeated studies on the brain damage found in retired football players.
To an extent, these risks almost enhance the allure of the sport for some men. Football, from its beginning, has been enmeshed with masculinity and masculine heroics in the American psyche and the game's violence is a key part of that.
For better and worse, that was evident in some of the reactions to Luck's retirement. Former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein criticized his decision, tweeting: "I am a HUGE Andrew Luck fan. Always have been. But this I cannot defend or justify. NO scenario where retirement is defensible. To do this to his teammates, organization, fans, and the NFL 2 weeks before the season is just not right. I love the guy but this will haunt him."
Quitting because of pain and health risk simply wasn't acceptable to many like Beuerlein under the code of manliness promoted by the romanticization of the game. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma best summarized the situation: a "substantial proportion of collegiate football players believe that they will sustain concussions during their careers" likely leading to "long-term effects ... "including dementia, CTE or Alzheimer's disease." Yet, they continued to play.
Unraveling the deeply embedded ideas linking risk, violence, football and masculinity cannot happen overnight. For more than a century pop culture and television have made football an integral part of exuding masculinity and achieving the heroics that generations of American men have dreamed about. Today, even those who don't play want access to the ecstasy and violence vicariously through super slow-mo replays and fantasy football. So long as that's the popular conception of the sport it will continue to thrive because dreams have power. To challenge the dominance of football, Americans will need to embrace new dreams and new ideals of masculinity.
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Hanley is an associate journalism professor and sports studies co-director at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.