After just nine years in the NFL, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, one of the biggest stars in the league, is reportedly planning to retire at age 30. Persistent injuries may have been the motivation behind Johnson’s decision, which will inevitably resurrect questions about player safety and its impact on the future of the league.
Johnson, who earned the flashy nickname Megatron due his Transformer-like ability to go up and grab passes within tight coverage, was a fan favorite and has been the face of the Detroit Lions franchise over the last several years. He set team records in receptions and receiving yards, and, in 2012, Johnson broke the NFL single-season record with 1,964 receiving yards. But a Super Bowl appearance and victory, the pinnacle of NFL achievement, alluded him. In recent seasons, Johnson was plagued by ankle injuries and overall body soreness, which may have been an inevitable result of his signature physical play of the field.
Still, by most football watchers’ standards, Johnson was very much in his prime. And some have speculated that Johnson’s departure from the league at such a young age may say more about the futility of the Lions franchise, then any lingering physical limitations. Johnson’s early departure has been compared to the premature retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders in 1999. Sanders, who played his entire 10-year career with the Lions, walked away from the game when he was arguably its most dominant player at his position. The Lions’ inability to make a deep playoff run at that time was widely cited as the motivation behind Sanders’ decision.
During Johnson’s tenure with the team, they made the playoffs twice, but posted losing records during the other seven years. Nevertheless, Johnson enjoyed very generous contract extensions with the team, and he will be leaving millions of dollars on the table should he formally retire before next season. Sports analysts by-and-large believe that Johnson would not be walking away if he was feeling physically up to returning. Last year, Johnson played a full season, and posted strong numbers on par with his best prior campaigns. But the Lions finished 7-9, and did not make the playoffs.
Johnson is arguably the biggest name is a rash of recent player retirements at surprising early stages of their careers. Former first found draft pick quarterback Jake Locker retired last year at age 27. Also stepping away from the game last year were the San Francisco 49ers’ 25-year-old Chris Borland and 24-year-old Anthony Davis. All of the players admitted that concerns over the toll the physical nature of the game had taken on their bodies and minds.
“I just want to live a long, healthy life, and I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would otherwise,” Borland told “Outside the Lines” last Spring.
This past season, due in part to the release of the feature film “Concussion,” which dramatizes the discovery of the brain disorder CTE in deceased football players, but also several high-profile injuries, the debate has continued to rage in the NFL on whether more needs to be done to protect players from potentially fatal neurological damage. The league has changed the rules in terms of where and how you can hit an opposing player, but there is widespread concern that if the violent nature of the sport is diluted, it will lose a significant amount of what makes it unique and appealing to fans.
However, as an increasing number of stars determine that the damage to their physical well-being is not worth the long term risks, it could present a bigger threat to the league than the bad press engendered by injured players.
On the other hand, some players may not have a choice but to keep playing in the NFL. For every Calvin Johnson, who is one of the highest paid players in the league (he signed a deal worth $132 million in 2012), there are the journeymen who average a playing career of roughly three years. Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that one in six retired NFL players eventually go bankrupt.