The recent retirement of San Francisco 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it obviously hurts the 49ers on the field where their offensive line has been reduced from a strength to a weakness of the team. But perhaps more importantly, it once again raises the question of the safety of football in light of new research on player health. In a statement Davis expressed: “After a few years of thought, I’ve decided it will be best for me to take a year or so away from the NFL. This will be a time for me to allow my Brain and Body a chance to heal. I know many won’t understand my decision, that’s ok.”
Davis is right in that not many people will understand his decision to retire. After all, he is walking away from a career that he has spent his entire life preparing for while leaving millions of dollars on the table. Football has a monopoly on the American sports market. This past year, the Super Bowl attracted 114.4 million viewers. That is equivalent to a third of the country, and is more than five times the viewership of this past NBA Finals. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, for all his screw-ups concerning domestic abuse and player-safety, has done a fantastic job growing the game to the point where it seems untouchable. Sure, high profile NFL players can beat their wives and their children; team owners can drive under the influence without harsh penalties, and apparently a team can purposely deflate footballs and later go on to be crowned champions. And yet despite all these recent scandals, football still reigns. The game is too entertaining and generates too much money to be stopped by concerns over player safety, domestic abuse or deflated balls. So yeah Anthony Davis, your right in that not many will understand why you are leaving the most popular game in America.
But for many players, the question what comes after football is starting to impact them more and more, and for good reason. Head injuries are a scary issue, and it is an issue that the NFL for years did not taking seriously enough. Research has shown that repeated blows to the head, hits that football players constantly experience, lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Alzheimer’s, depression and ALS. Remember that whole ice bucket challenge phenomenon? Well, who knew that the players a third of the country watches every Sunday are four times more likely to contract ALS, the very same disease that it seemed half the country was so intent on raising money to combat. After being taken to court in a lawsuit from 5,000 former players, the NFL admitted that nearly a third of retired players are expected to develop long-term cognitive problems, and that these conditions are likely to emerge at a notably younger ages than in the general population. And yet despite this damming evidence, and despite the league openly admitting that a third of its players will develop cognitive issues, football still reigns.
The only way to send a message is to remove the product from the field; in this case, actions speak volumes louder than words. This is why the San Francisco 49ers are turning into an interesting case study for the NFL. In the past year alone, San Francisco has now had three key players retire citing concerns over their future health: Chris Boreland, Patrick Willis and now Anthony Davis. All three of these players were quality performers making or set to make millions of dollars. And yet all three turned down the money, and walked away from the sport they love to make a living doing something that wouldn’t impact their lives twenty years down the road. On the one hand, there is something admirable about that, sort of like a group of trail blazers paving a path for others to follow. But on the other hand, it just makes sense to turn away from football to ensure that the risks for contracting brain issues are
The 49ers are significantly worse off now than they were last year when these guys were playing, and as a result there is no doubt that the on-field product will not be as good as last year. Who do they have to replace these guys? All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman is coming back, but he’s still recovering from serious knee surgery. Erik Pears is currently a candidate to replace Davis, but he graded out as one of the worst guards last year by pro football focus. The talent drain just from these three players retiring leaves the 49ers in a tough position. Perhaps if enough talented players follow suit to damage the quality of the games, the NFL will notice. The San Francisco 49ers sure have.
I am not trying to campaign for the end football, or the NFL. I love the product it places on the field too much to ever stop watching the games. But its players and fans need to know the risks involved; that this game endangers its participants like no other mainstream sport. No other team has been impacted from this heightened awareness more than the 49ers. The lawsuit of former players, the research connecting brain issues to football, and the retirements of in-their-prime players has grabbed headlines. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, the league does in response.