September 27, 2019
Citing persistent pain from injuries sustained in his career, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck last month chose to retire, shocking the sporting world. All-star players seldom walk away from the game in their prime and Luck’s announcement came two weeks before the start of the new football season. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Colts fans booed their former hero as he ran to the locker room at halftime of a preseason game.
I understand Andrew Luck’s dilemma. One of the great rewards of playing a team sport is that teammates count on each other, and nothing in sports stings quite the same way as believing that you have let the team down. But Luck’s six professional seasons also resulted in a torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, a concussion, and torn cartilage in his ribs and shoulder. The same game he loved took a toll on his body he no longer wished to bear.
Some criticized Luck for his timing, but what really caught my eye were the critics who suggested that Luck’s real failure resided not in his timing but in his backbone. This opinion amplifies a belief that almost all boys will encounter in one form or another, namely, that to be a “real” man is to deny one’s own pain and vulnerability.
We know that part of growing into maturity -- into manhood -- is pushing through momentary discomfort. However, boys are denied the right to a full range of human emotions when they are told that their masculinity rests on their toughness. As a young athlete, I certainly internalized this version of manhood. Often injured, I felt doubly guilty when I was forced to sit out: I was letting the team down, and I was falling short of my masculine code.
Our culture constantly asks boys to “play through pain,” and labels giving in to pain or showing vulnerability as fundamentally “unmanly” or “feminine.” For too many boys, to be a man is to be stoic, to deny one’s hurt or fear, and to soldier on, no matter the circumstances. Acknowledging uncertainty, and a need for help or relief, a boy may be told to “man up” rather than allowed to process these feelings. When boys learn that a category of emotions is appropriate only to girls and women, rather than to all humans, the damage is profound—both to boys’ appreciation and respect for girls and women and also to their understanding of what kind of men they can become.
The support for Luck’s decision has been universal in the Colts’ locker room, but he surely must have known that critics would fault him for not “toughing it out,” and betraying the masculine code. Despite that, Luck had the courage to acknowledge both his pain and his hope that others would understand his choice. In giving voice to his vulnerability, Andrew Luck made a brave, even admirable decision—and showed the rest of us that we should continue to offer our boys a broader definition of what a “real man” looks like.