Andrew the Giant Luck Retires

Thinking about the NFL’s S-curve

Students of chemistry are achingly familiar with the S curve, not only because we had to stare at so many of them while preparing for our lab sections on acids and bases, but also because so many of us bombed those very lab sections. We hadn’t mastered the delicate dance of cracking open stopcock on a burette just enough while keeping our eye on the pH meter to accurately record the moment that liquid hit. I have fond memories of my chemistry days, but I can’t quite remember why I needed to know the equivalence point between an acid and a base anymore, but I know we spent a lot of time at those friggin’ burette’s trying to drip out 0.1 ml at a time. Eventually it became second nature, to the point where I remember it still. Drip, measure, drip, hold on was that one drip or two, measure. Dammit.

This is what an S curve is supposed to look like

In chemistry there are a lot of physical states of this kind of S-curve phenomena where, in an experiment, you need to very carefully tinker with a property to change something which will happen very suddenly, though generally at precisely predictable moments if your math is good. In other words, something is true about a material. Until it’s not. We can observe this in cultural phenomena as well. Gay marriage was a potent weapon in the 2004 election cycle and by 2015, even a conservative Supreme Court was fine with it. Marijuana was, um, frowned upon on forever and now more and more states are just straight up legalizing it, the only people standing in the way at the Federal level are racist, old white men clinging to one of their favorite excuses to put people of color into prison. Something is true, until it’s not.

Andrew Luck retired from football on August 24, 2019. He was 29 years old.

The first time I read Malcolm Gladwell talk about the end of football as we know it, it was in like 2009, and it seemed like a reach, to put it mildly. It was alternate history, it was fanciful, it might as well have been sci-fi. Yeah, the CTE thing looked bad, but not THAT bad. It was a topic to consider in an epic email back and forth in the final weeks of an NFL season, when the news slows down a bit. Maybe it was something for futurists and hot take artists to contemplate when they needed something to write about and the end of football as America knows it sounds like something that will get some clicks. The rest of us had to remember to set our fantasy football lineup in time for that damn Thursday game. Then it was game day. Then it was the playoffs. Then it was the Super Ball. Then it was the Combine. Then the Draft. Football kept on keeping on.

I have grown a lot more skeptical since then. I famously wrote about why I stopped watching the NFL on this very web site. To shove this back into the titration metaphor, we’ve dripped a lot of fluid out of that burette between 2009 and 2019. I don’t have a pH meter to tell us where on the S curve between “NFL rules every Sunday with an iron fist and you should tip toe around Thursday and Monday, too” and “They still play that awful sport?” but surely high profile player retirements can be thought of as a slight change in the bromophenol blue of the acidic (and toxic) solution of the modern day NFL. I can’t estimate how many drips away we are, but if I were back in the lab, I would be in the phase of the experiment where I was a lot more careful about watching that solution and the pH meter. I don’t think the NFL thinks that way, even if we throw my silly nerd metaphor out, but they probably should.

Sure, viewership of a Sunday is something like 15 million across the TV networks, but that’s been a slippery slope lately and there were 3 straight years of decline for an uptick in 2018. Even the league accepted that the dip existed, though they blamed it on the quality of play. Admittedly, that’s because they didn’t want to say it had anything to do with Kaepernick or Trump, but they were also not wrong. Thursday night football is famously fluky and puky to watch, everybody knows that. The NFL tries to make London games a thing, but they are always terrible. Always. The average ability of the players and their ability to play to the highest levels. The NFL wants an 18 game season, so clearly, the quality of play is not their primary concern. But there is a bigger issue lurking.

From the Aspen Institute 2018 State of Play report

Those viewership numbers might look rosy, but there are big waves coming down the pipe. For one thing, since it became abundantly clear that CTE (not concussions, but the every play grind) ruins men’s lives reaching back to their childhood, tackle football’s popularity is way down. Quite a few parents simply aren’t letting their kids play PeeWee football (including macho blowhard, Donald Trump). If your product depends on players and there are fewer players coming, you have a serious product problem, especially right at the moment when you are rushing to create more (terrible) product. On top of that, current players are walking away from the game either at or before their peaks.

In 2015, Chris Borland retired after his excellent rookie season. He was 24 years old.

In 2016, Calvin Johnson, one of the most electric wide receivers of all time, retired. He was 30 years old.

In 2018, Kam Chancellor, founding member of the Legion of Boom, retired. He was 30 years old.

In June of 2019, Navarro Bowman retired. He was 31 years old.

Drip. Drip. Drip. Drip. Is anyone paying attention to the solution, dammit?!

In a more just world where billionaires suddenly found themselves able to enjoy their untold wealth without feeling the need to run up the score by running down other human beings, the NFL would treat its players better. They would have guaranteed contracts and good pensions and excellent healthcare until they died of old age. A little humility would go a long way to changing the toxic stew of entitlement and exploitation at the very top of the NFL, it would probably save football as we know it, even with everything we know about CTE, dementia, and suicide. Sadly for those who love football, the NFL continues to mint money so there is no impetus to change the grasping, dishonest, and cackhanded way the league is run. The system is fine, until it’s not. Andrew Luck was owed $60 million. He decided it wasn’t worth it. Even for the best players in the league, the game, the fame, and the money aren’t quite enough any more. Drip. Or was it, drip, drip? Crap.

Valuations based on earnings expectations are notoriously lagging indicators. The dotcom bubble didn’t deflate out; it burst. The mortgage market didn’t drift into dysfunction; it exploded. The NFL looks fine. Drip. Less fine than it did before August 25, 2019. Drip. The NFL is like my shitty lab partners: they won’t be looking when the next. Drip. comes and the whole lab will be ruined. The big difference is that they don’t get start the lab over when they finally do.

Theatre. Sports. Econ. Cocktails. General geekery. The usual.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store