It should be noted that many commenters and teammates were supportive of the news, which Luck delivered through tears. It should be noted that those who weren’t supportive apparently viewed the retirement as a capitulation to weakness, an assault on masculinity.
“A lot of guys have gone thru multiple years of rehab after bad luck w injuries,” wrote retired quarterback Steve Beuerlein. “I had 19 surgeries as a player. 8 over 2 years. It sucks! But he owes it to his team.”
Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb declared, “Retiring cause rehabbing is ‘too hard’ is the most millennial thing ever. . . . What does it say about [Washington Redskins player] Alex Smith trying to come back from a leg injury where he nearly lost a limb. Different mentality.”
Gottlieb is right: It is a different mentality. Luck’s mentality is that his intrinsic value doesn’t depend on offering himself up for beatings in a notoriously dangerous sport. That his dedication to his team could be reflected in his willingness to leave it, opening up a spot for someone healthier, rather than by a determination to stay at all costs.
Yes, his decision was made easier by his massive fortune; his 2016 extension with the Colts was worth $140 million. Not every laborer who works a knee-brutalizing job can afford to limp away from their livelihoods. “I have family working in steel mills . . . cops . . . teachers making far less and this guy is ‘tired’. . . . my backside,” wrote ESPN radio host Dan Dakich.
Anyway, I’m going to stop talking about Luck for a minute. Partly because I’ve run out of all the factoids I Googled about him.
But also because the backlash Luck received from a vocal minority of fans reminded me of a speech President Trump gave earlier this month in Pittsburgh. While the ostensible topic was energy policy, the speech quickly became an extemporaneous lecture on jobs — and specifically, what kinds of jobs men should have.
“You don’t want to make widgets, right? You don’t want to make . . . a little tiny piece of stuff,” the president said, as he mimicked dainty hand motions. “You put it with those big, beautiful hands of yours like . . . you’re going to go home, ‘Alice this is a tough job.’ Nah, you want to make steel, and you want to dig coal — that’s what you want to do!”
Real men, he was implying, should want jobs that leave them dirty and tired at the end of the day. They should want physical jobs, sweaty jobs, jobs with a lot of pain involved.
It was a limiting view of men’s work, but it was one that also appears frequently in my inbox, usually after I’ve written anything about masculinity. To my knowledge, I’ve never been emailed by a professional football player, but I’ve heard from multiple cops, factory workers, maybe a steel-mill worker or two. Men who are, like Dakich’s relatives, also on their feet all day and are in a lot of pain. Back spasms. Sciatica. The kind of pain that thrums in the background, while they shove their feet into ice buckets and just get on with it.
As the pain builds, so too does these men’s belief that it all must mean something. The pain is what allows them to feed their families, so they have come to see it as a marker of their self-worth — they are men, they tell me, because they are willing to be in pain every day and not complain about it.
“I’m proud of not being a sissy,” one reader memorably wrote, after sharing a list of maladies he’d gritted his teeth through over the course of a career. “It’s what men do.”
There’s something terribly troubled about a society that convinces men that this is “what they do.” That puts workers in jobs that break their bodies, and convinces them that the brokenness is a sign that they’re doing it right. That sees speaking up as weakness and pushing through as a necessity.
The revolutionary thing about Luck’s retirement is that he said what men are not supposed to say. He said he was in pain. He said the pain was hurting him.
Football is a sport that epitomizes American masculinity, and here was one of its stars saying he didn’t want to live like this forever — that he didn’t think life should be this way.
He said what should be easier for a lot of men to say. I don’t know a dang thing about football, but I know he said something that should be easier for all men to say.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.