Andrew Luck retired young and was hailed for his courage; Barry Sanders was called a quitter
By BEN STRAUSS | The Washington Post | Published: August 28, 2019
The Saturday night news that Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck was retiring at 29 years old — a shocking, league-defining event that altered the trajectory of a franchise — had an obvious precedent.
Twenty years earlier, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, just 31 and also seemingly at the peak of his powers, jolted the NFL with his own sudden retirement. There was no tweet from ESPN's Adam Schefter then; Sanders simply faxed a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, to announce he was finished playing.
"The reason I am retiring is simple: My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it," Sanders wrote.
In the intervening two decades, football, as a sport and as an American institution, has changed. Its incredible spike in popularity has been matched by the growing realization of its toll on the human body. The dangers of head injuries are understood in ways mostly unfathomable then. How the sport is covered has evolved, too. Coverage of its peril is now ubiquitous, and there is a greater awareness of football as a business, both for teams and players. The realities of short careers and non-guaranteed contracts are a regular part of media coverage of holdouts and negotiations. Players are afforded more agency than they once were.
Those changes are readily apparent from the way the Sanders and Luck announcements were covered. To be sure, there are distinctions between the two players. Sanders retired with a fax and immediately took off for Europe; Luck held an emotional news conference, an opportunity to explain his decision. Sanders enjoyed a mostly healthy career; Luck battled an array of injuries and was facing another setback this summer. Sanders was notoriously enigmatic with the press; Luck, owner of a flip phone and a sponsor of book clubs, was a favorite of reporters.
Still, a review of coverage is revealing, both for the content of the stories and whose perspective they are written from.
In Detroit, the backlash to Sanders was immediate and fierce. Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press wrote, "Sanders isn't retiring. Sanders is quitting. He's quitting on his teammates, who based their offseason hopes on his return. And he's quitting on his fans who knew that he was really the only reason to care even the slightest iota about the Lions."
Tom Kowalski in the Ann Arbor News had a similar take: "Could you really expect the hard-boiled determination of a winner to arise from a man who didn't have the guts to face a reporter? Or his head coach? Or even his own teammates?"
"I refuse to believe Sanders is this evil," wrote Terry Foster of the Detroit News. "Yeah, I used the term evil. If he walks away from the Lions with a gutless press release, he is nothing more than a spiteful, bitter man who should be ashamed of himself."
Free Press columnist Mitch Albom was harsh, too. "He was hailed like a god for the way he ran but will now be remembered for the way he walked out. Barry Sanders, arguably the greatest running back in football, spent 10 years dodging contact in the NFL, only to depart with his own rocking elbow to the face. The recipients were his team, his coaches, his fans and his city. And the black eye is just beginning to swell." (Albom also added, "Fans want someone's head. The truth may be that Sanders simply tired of the game, the pain, the media attention.")
Nationally, the refrains were similar. In the Los Angeles Times, T.J. Simers wrote, "Barry Sanders is having an NFL tantrum." Greg Cote in the Miami Herald wrote, "Barry Sanders left his teammates like a callous husband who skips out on his wife with a FAX from his lawyer." In USA Today, Jon Saraceno penned an open letter to Sanders, titled "Responsibility."
"Freedom and responsibility line up as a tandem set in life's backfield," he wrote. "You put your own interests in motion without letting others in the huddle know what the play was." He added, "I don't remember O.J. Simpson or Walter Payton walking out on bad teams."
Sanders even came in for an eye roll on NPR — NPR! — where host Bob Edwards said during an interview, "He stiffs the team just as they're beginning camp. They can't make any moves now. At least he could have done this before the draft."
In an interview this week, Saraceno said his column was largely a reaction to the way Sanders retired.
"Retirement is a personal thing," he said. "But I thought the way Barry did it was classless, with no warning to his coaches and teammates, and I would write the exact same thing today."
Albom, in an email, wrote: "It's true, today, I think all sportswriters are more sensitive to issues like concussions, quality of life, and are not surprised — and perhaps less judgmental — when NFL players decide enough is enough. In fact, a number have retired now, including Andrew Luck, at a younger age than Barry Sanders. It's worth noting that Barry never suffered such injuries nor did he express concern for his health as a reason for his retirement. He just walked away. To this day, fans are unsure as to why. My column 20 years ago reflected how the city felt upon his sudden unexplained departure via a fax. I think the way Luck has done it leaves no question as to his reasons, and in my mind, warrants no criticism. Had Barry done it the same way, I believe most Detroiters would have accepted it immediately and celebrated him and his career."
Luck has endured some criticism, most notably from the Colts fans who booed him off the field Saturday night in the wake of the breaking news. And, sure, there was some notable noise from shock jocks Doug Gottlieb ("Retiring cause rehabbing is 'too hard' is the most millennial thing ever") and Dan Dakich ("I have family working in steel mills..cops..teachers making far less and this guy is "tired"..... my backside.") But the critics were roundly shouted down, almost in unison, by an assortment of sportswriters.
In Indianapolis, longtime columnist Bob Kravitz explicitly rebuked the boo birds in The Athletic. "Luck didn't deserve the boos," he wrote. "What he does deserve are our respect and understanding. Ultimately, it just became too much — the injuries, the pain, the rehab, the speculation, the questions about his future — and it wore him down to an emotional nub."
One Colts beat writer, Zak Keefer, also in The Athletic, laid out the injuries Luck has suffered and sympathetically recalled Luck's interest in his own personhood. "Something I learned last year," Luck said to Keefer, "(was that) if my worth as a human was going to be tied into how I did — the result of a performance in a football game — then I was going to have, pardon my French, a real s----- life."
In the Indianapolis Star, Gregg Doyel struck a sharper pose, writing, "We know the ceiling of [Jim] Brown, [Barry] Sanders . . . Andrew Luck's ceiling? We'll never know. He didn't play long enough to get there. The question will nag at us around here, but it will haunt Andrew Luck, follow him for the rest of this life and then attach itself to his memory. He won't be remembered for the years he gave us, but the years he took away."
Yet even that criticism was couched in empathy. Of Luck's news conference, Doyel wrote, "[Y]ou saw something startling. And you heard fear. You heard self-preservation."
Around the country, the praise for Luck was effusive. "With what we know about football, and what we continue to learn, it is hard to argue with the long-term wisdom of Luck's choice," wrote Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal. Kevin Clark in The Ringer called him "courageous."
"Football, like fighting sports," Clark wrote, "has far too many stories of players retiring too late and not enough of them retiring too early." During his news conference, Luck said, "I haven't been able to live the life I want to live," which Yahoo's Dan Wetzel called, "an astoundingly powerful and personal statement" and "one of the most profound, honest and open things anyone has ever said at a retirement news conference."
By Monday, Sanders had weighed in, telling the New York Daily News of Luck, "I think he handled it about as well as you could." But the media narrative around the two retirements wasn't nearly the same. Sanders was the villain of his departure. In Luck's version, 20 years later, it was football.