Amid the din of another National Football League season dominated this year by (shuffle the deck) concussions, bullying, and an uncharacteristically weak American Football Conference, a quiet counterpoint was the midseason retirement of Denver Broncos offensive lineman John Moffitt. The man-bites-dog aspect is that he left when he didn’t need to (he is just 27) and when there was several hundred thousand dollars on the table this year alone. There were mitigating circumstances—a voided preseason trade and then an actual preseason trade, limited playing time, a penchant for the writings of Noam Chomsky and the Dalai Lama—but you could just as easily argue that the guy on Peyton Manning’s team has a good shot at a ring, and so circumstances mitigated in the other direction as well.
Moffitt left the National Football League™, and yet he is a capital-M Man (I mean, he plays football, don’t he?). So what gives? It is to the media’s credit that it didn’t conclude that Moffitt is a wimp. Rather, now that the public is newly and appropriately cynical about the NFL, the takeaway has been that Moffitt is a conscientious objector. “He quit the NFL because he'd lost his love for the game and was tired of risking his health,” read the AP lead. Quoting a radio appearance, the Fox Sports headline announced: “John Moffitt: NFL Is ‘Dirty Business.’” And in today’s New York Times, in an article featuring perhaps Moffitt’s most extensive post-retirement interview, the headline blares, “Quitting the NFL: For John Moffitt, the Money Wasn’t Worth It.” Worth what? “Elbow surgery,” hurt shoulders, “sleep apnea,” floaters.
Moffitt’s comments do contain mentions of his health. It would be silly to defend the NFL or to minimize brain damage that we now believe is linked to the playing of football (by offensive linemen perhaps most of all). But a more fruitful look at Moffitt’s decision reveals that its sports dimension does not distinguish it substantively. Rather, as with most good sports stories, that Moffitt is a successful professional athlete makes what he did merely an exaggerated instance of a trade-off most adults consider every day.
It is worth noting that Moffitt has not so much minimized as actively mocked the notion that concerns over brain damage contributed to his action. He announced his retirement in a tweet that read (in reference to the NFL commissioner), “Football was fun but my head hurts-haha kidding roger goodell. I'm on to new things, thanks to everyone along the way!!!” Which is another way of saying that if you read what Moffitt has actually said about his decision, it is clear that it was primarily informed neither by football injuries nor, really, anything specifically to do with his being an NFL player. “I just really thought about it and decided I’m not happy. I'm not happy at all,” he told the AP earlier this month. Though he acknowledged the concussions risk, he specifically disavowed—in what was pretty clearly a response to a leading question from the reporter—being a “poster boy” for that cause.
He comes across as a mix of thoughtful (like former Broncos tight end Nate Jackson, author of an excellent book about his time in the NFL) and loopy (like former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, which almost leads one to wonder if there is something in Denver’s thin air that knocks the sense into you). To the Times, he explained: “You kind of let go of that dream that you kill yourself for, to be a millionaire, and you see through it and see that it’s just a façade. I let go of all that stuff.”
Look at Moffitt through a certain light—the light, I suspect, through which Moffitt himself would wish us to view him—and his sacrifices and rewards become less dissimilar than the ones we all make and seek. The difference becomes one of degree, not of kind. Who doesn’t skimp on sleep, exercise, and personal maintenance in pursuit of money? Who doesn’t spend time away from family (Moffitt’s father, he said, is “my best friend and I never get to see him”; he has a girlfriend and her daughter back home in Seattle) in order to try to attain glory, however glory happens to be defined? (A Super Bowl victory is witnessed by more than 100 million Americans. It is also exactly as fleeting as every other kind of professional victory, or defeat.) “It’s disturbing that people are questioning my sanity for giving up the money,” Moffitt told the Times. “What does that say about our world?” It says, perhaps, that not enough of us would identify our occupation as Moffitt now does in his Twitter bio: “active happiness pursuer.”