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5 reasons a player like Aaron Donald would seriously consider an early retirement

How post-career earning opportunities and the risk-reward balance of football may not pay off for over-30 superstars

NBA: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Rodney Harrison really stirred the pot before the Super Bowl, breaking the news that Aaron Donald would strongly consider retirement if the Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl. Then the Rams won the Super Bowl and those rumors didn’t go away.

Mainly because Donald hasn’t done anything yet to completely snuff those rumors out.

Right after winning the Super Bowl, Donald said that he just wanted to focus on the moment. Then at the parade, he said it would be exciting to “run it back” with Sean McVay. It also appeared that Donald said to McVay that his return was predicated on the head coach coming back, which is all but guaranteed at this point.

It seems that before completely signing on, Donald would also like to know if Odell Beckham Jr and Von Miller are coming back. To see if the Rams can repeat as the world champions by keeping the core together in spite of his own massive $26.75 million cap hit—more than any wide receiver, left tackle, or linebacker in the league.

(Funny enough, Donald is only third in 2022 salary among interior defensive linemen, trailing Chris Jones and Leonard Williams.)

But Aaron Donald would not be the first player to retire at 30 when he was seemingly still on top. Though T.J. Watt won Defensive Player of the Year, that is only a subjective award and it would be easy to make the the argument that Donald remains the best all-around player in the entire league. There’s only one direction left to go when you’re perched on the top.

Donald must not only balance the risk-reward of an early retirement, he must do so in 2022. It’s an era unlike any other and there could be more pulling athletes of his caliber away from the game than there are pins holding him down.

Here are five of them.

All of the accolades have been acquired

Aaron Donald’s main motivation for returning to the Rams in 2021 was to win a Super Bowl. He had done just about everything else. Now he’s practically done it all.

Three-time Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time All-Pro, eight Pro Bowls in eight seasons, a sack title in 2018, two Super Bowl appearances, and now a Lombardi trophy. Aaron Donald’s resume is so good that when he does retire, it will call into question the five-year waiting period before he can get into the Hall of Fame.

The only reason to wait? The possibility that he will return to the NFL before the five years is up, just so he can dominate again.

From his first summer with the Rams, people knew that Donald was special. It didn’t even take until Week 1 before fans realized that teams had made a mistake by letting him drop outside of the top-10. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowler as a rookie, accumulating nine sacks from the defensive tackle position. A rare monster then, a unicorn among unicorns now.

I can’t be sold on the idea that anybody cares about winning Super Bowl MVP (I could maybe name five Super Bowl MVPs ever, one of whom being Cooper Kupp) and practically the last thing Donald needs now is Canton.

There was a time when J.J. Watt was as decorated and flawless as Donald. He’s still a first ballot Hall of Famer. But over the last six years, Watt has only separated himself from that perception, not emboldened it: 55 games played (out of a possible 97), five seasons with five or fewer sacks, a few forgettable playoff appearances.

There is a time to build up your reputation. Sometimes there’s also time enough to tear it down. Donald’s hit the law of diminishing returns era of his career now that he has the Super Bowl championship—the only way to raise that stock is to win another Super Bowl right away.

That’s why he’s waiting to see how good the Rams actually intend to be in 2022 before he signs on himself.

The contract money actually isn’t worth it anymore

Most people can’t fathom the idea of even earning $55 million in their entire lifetimes, let alone walking away from that much money (the remaining base salaries and roster bonuses on Donald’s contract), but most people also don’t have as much money as what Aaron Donald has already banked by 31.

Donald accomplished his number one career goal when he gave his parents an early retirement in 2018. His parents are set for life. He and his wife and their three children are set for life. That much of the equation is as clear as day, Aaron Donald is rich.

However, the modern era of sports media and the internet have opened the door for athletes to potentially earn even more money after they retire. In fact, you could argue that for certain players they are actually leaving more money on the table by playing than they are by retiring and devoting all of their attention to their post-career career goals.

Donald could earn $14.25 million by playing this season (base salary+$5 million roster bonus) and that’s enough money to dramatically change the lives of 99-percent of people. But it’s not necessarily enough to change Donald’s life at this point and we’ve seen a few notable examples recently of players actually making more money after retirement.

As a punter, Pat McAfee was obviously one of the lowest-paid players in the NFL during his career, but he still made something like $15 million during his football days. McAfee recently signed a contract that pays him $30 million per year for his podcast. He’s obviously a rare care because he’s specifically doing an independent show—a sign of modern times in which tons of former pro athletes have turned to self-made media opportunities, including even some current ones like Taylor Lewan and Will Compton on Bussin’ with the Boys—but players making a lot of money by getting on TV after they retire is nothing new.

Tony Romo, another exceptional case of landing in the right place at the right time after retirement, reportedly has a 10-year, $180 million deal at CBS. Romo played in the league for 14 years and made $127 million with the Cowboys.

I don’t know that Aaron Donald is necessarily a “media guy” but whether he is or isn’t, there are so many new avenues for players to make ridiculous sums of money once they walk away from football. Endorsements are everywhere. NFT companies would probably line around the blockchain to pay Donald seven-figure sums for telling his 1.1 million Instagram followers about their 1s and 0s.

He’s already involved with something called Prospect Media, an apparent media company in his hometown of Pittsburgh.

When the Rams first moved to Los Angeles in 1946, it would still be years before most players considered the NFL anything more than a part time job. Today, having multiple careers is once again practically a “must” for star athletes, but now instead of the extra work being for enough money to put food on the table for you family... it’s so you can put food on the table for generations of family members who haven’t even been born yet.

Money could be a reason that Aaron Donald returns to the Rams. It’s quite apparent though that it no longer has to be the first reason.

Family

Speaking of family, AD’s got one. And it’s expanding. The Donalds welcomed a third child in September and as Sean McVay has been alluding to with his own retirement rumors: spending time with your kids and watching them grow up is important to many current and prospective fathers.

Put that in the bank, there’s nothing else that needs to be explained.

Protecting the body and brain

Everybody has to make their own personal decisions when it comes to their health and figuring out that risk/reward balance is something that the one-percent of “successful” football players must do year after year.

A high school football player may only be taking those risks because of a dream of playing in the NFL one day. The reward is BAD (dreams don’t pay bills) but the risk is typically NEGLIGIBLE (the majority of Americans played high school sports, with roughly one million male students at any given time playing high school football). I won’t downplay the risk of a concussion, only that it’s a risk that most of you reading this sentence have either a) taken yourself or b) know a ton of people who did.

A college football player has a slightly different risk/reward, but this balance is also something that’s changing more than ever in 2021-2022. There are about 70,000 college football players and they are now facing tougher, and in some ways more dangerous opponents than ever. Bigger, faster, stronger... you get it. However, the NCAA made a groundbreaking rule change in 2021, allowing players to sign Name, Image, and Likeness deals (NIL) that now give athletes direct monetary rewards for their success.

And sometimes even before they have any success at all—2021 super freshman recruit QB Quinn Ewers made over $1 million and not only did he not play for Ohio State, he transferred to Texas before ever taking a meaningful snap. Ewers is an exceptional case, of course. The average Division I athlete reportedly made about $686 before taxes in NIL deals last year. That doesn’t seem like much but the vast majority of NIL deals went to football players, so on average they made much more than that.

But college football players may also be assuming more risk than the average athlete because of the collisions involved with the sport. If you get a full scholarship and a little extra cash, the reward is somewhat starting to approach the risk. However, 99-percent of college football players would be foolish to believe that they’re playing for a guaranteed shot at the NFL. Even Ewers has a long way to go before securing his spot at the next level. The reward in college is still rather BAD (dreams, maybe $1,000 per year) and the risk goes up slightly.

Now let’s say you’ve made the NFL... After ~8 years of the reward being chasing a dream, it becomes THE DREAM ITSELF. No longer is a player like Aaron Donald chasing the second contract he signed in 2018 that allowed his parents to retire. He got it. However, with every passing season most players also realize that their RISK is getting greater and greater. Even if the impact isn’t felt now, while Donald still looks like this:

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Los Angeles Rams Championship Parade Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

But what about Donald’s life in 20, 30, or 40 years from now? He’s got enough money in the bank to not have to worry about life in 2062. Does he have the assurance that his body and mind will be able to enjoy it though? A 2020 study of former NFL players showed that over 90-percent “report pain due to muscle overuse, muscular-skeletal injuries and head trauma that have accumulated over years of playing football.”

We all know this already: Football=dangerous. You’re guaranteed to get hurt. If Aaron Donald doesn’t need the money, if he can’t get more famous (which is hardly even a reward, depending on your personal take on fame), if another Defensive Player of the Year award won’t move the needle on his Hall of Fame resume, if he doesn’t have to chase a Super Bowl championship... then it becomes harder and harder to define a REWARD (more of everything that he already has) and yet the RISK goes up with every passing game and every new season.

It’s not fair to any other player to compare their risk to someone like Tom Brady, who has been able to play until 44. I’ve never watched Brady practice but I can hazard a guess at the number of hits he’s taken in practice over the last 20 years: Zero. He’s been sacked less than 100 times in the last four years and many of those “hits” are hardly hits at all. A defensive tackle and an offensive lineman are involved in a collision on every single play.

Aaron Donald is built different because he has to be—if he continues playing football. When he stops playing football, the RISK drops to zero and now it is the REWARD that could start seeing returns again.

He can always come back

I think that temporary retirements like those of Rob Gronkowski and Eric Weddle may only increase in popularity. Even Brady has left the door open for a return. Philip Rivers was reportedly weighing his options at the end of last season.

Take everything you’ve read so far in this article and just apply it to a short-term retirement:

  • Re-charge your batteries to account for the difficult life decision you’ve made to play football for a living
  • Make some off-field money, then come back and make a ton of on-field money down the line
  • Aaron Donald is guaranteed to have suitors if he chooses to return, meaning there’s almost no risk in a short-term retirement
  • Choose to come back to a team when you know they’re likely to be successful and have a postseason run
  • Spend some time with your family—then go back to football
  • Find a hunger and motivation again once you’ve done everything that you think a football player can ever do
  • See what it’s like to live outside of football and then decide if it’s something you even like, giving yourself a chance to taste retirement before making a final decision
  • Every day spent off of the field is a day that may protect your body and brain

If you retire on top, you can always un-retire. If Watt retires in 2022, but changes his mind in a year, how many offers will he have in 2023?

I will not say that “hopefully Aaron Donald doesn’t retire” because despite how much I love watching him play football, that’s not my choice to make for him. He’s more than a football player, he’s a person and what I hope is that he’s a happy person who is enjoying the game and not just taking those risks for our benefit. Selfishly yes, I want to see Aaron Donald play another 10 years. He makes the game better.

It sure seems like he’s going to come back. However, if a player of his caliber does decide to retire at 30, it makes enough sense to say “Thank you and good luck...” and maybe also “See you later.”