New England Patriots star linebacker Jerod Mayo decided, at age twenty-nine, that he was done with the surgeries, constant pain, and physical sacrifice that the National Football League demands.
There is little doubt that Mayo could have rehabbed from his injuries and returned to the league. But he decided that, despite the opportunity to make more money and play more football, it was time to retire.
Mayo has a reputation as one of the sport’s most passionate and hard-working players. His decision to walk away sent shockwaves through the league. But perhaps it should not have been so stunning, given emergent trends.
Last year, I was speaking with DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFL Players Association, about Jim Brown. Arguably the greatest football player to ever walk among us, Brown famously walked away from the game after just nine seasons. During his last year, Brown led the NFL in rushing and was the league MVP.
“Jim is one of the few people that I know of who actually retired,” Smith told me. “Not the guys who couldn’t play anymore. The guys who could play, but for whatever reason said, ‘You know what, I’m done.’ Jim Brown and [Detroit Lions Hall of Fame running back] Barry Sanders are really the only two guys who could have probably played at a high level for another three or four years, but instead said, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m done right now.’ ”
In other words, they were the only two stars who chose to walk, not limp, away from the game. Yet in the days before Mayo retired, we saw two borderline Hall of Fame players also choose to walk and not limp: Calvin Johnson, the record-setting wide receiver for the Lions, and running back Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks. Johnson is thirty, Lynch twenty-nine.
Roger Goodell, the NFL’s deeply disconnected commissioner, was asked about Calvin Johnson at his annual Super Bowl press conference. The question was very straightforward: “What does it say to you about the state of the NFL that so many players are walking away so young?”
Goodell’s answer was, in part, “I don’t see so many people walking away from the game. I don’t agree with that. I see great athletes playing this game and loving to play this game. I talk to players all the time who say, ‘I hope I can play forever.’ They can’t. That’s not possible. But guys love this game. They’re passionate about this game. And if you lose that passion, maybe it’s time to move on. That happens in life.”
This assessment by Goodell could not be more insulting. If it is not just corporate spin, then it borders on the sociopathic. I have never, ever, met a player who dreams he could play forever. They may dream that their bodies stay in one piece, but the fantasy is to leave the game intact, not remain in this theater of violence, never knowing if your next play will be your last.
Even worse is Goodell’s dismissal of people’s desire to protect their bodies and their minds, to not get early-onset Alzheimer’s or ALS or any of the myriad post-concussion syndromes, and to remember the names of their grandchildren. To flag this desire as an absence of passion is abhorrent.
The next day, during the Super Bowl, the charismatic Marshawn Lynch announced that he was leaving as well. Lynch has long been one of the more polarizing—and beloved—athletes of his time, because he is unapologetically himself. Yet one thing I have never seen Lynch accused of is an absence of passion.
As for Jerod Mayo, he defines passion and heart. Mayo has left the game, and Goodell—with his blather about passion—is left without a clue. That’s what happens when your most fervent commitment is to profits and not the lives of the people who make the league run. ω
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.