What Vontae Davis’s Shocking Halftime Retirement Teaches us About Quitting
A week ago Sunday, Buffalo Bills cornerback, Vontae Davis, left the field at halftime of his team’s rout by the L.A. Rams, entered the locker room, changed into his street clothes, and left the stadium. He later announced that he had retired from the game. “I shouldn’t be out there anymore,” Davis explained. The response of everyone who follows football, and many who don’t, was the same: stunned disbelief.
Davis later released a statement explaining his decision, which said, in part:
“I meant no disrespect to my teammates and coaches. But I hold myself to a standard. Mentally, I always expect myself to play at a high level. But physically, I know today that isn’t possible, and I had an honest moment with myself. While I was on the field, I just didn’t feel right, and I told the coaches, ‘I’m not feeling like myself.’
“I also wondered: Do I want to keep sacrificing?
“And truthfully, I do not because the season is long, and it’s more important for me and my family to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late.”
When I heard Davis’s surprising retirement story and read his statement, I breathed a sigh of relief for him. Professional football is too brutal a sport for half-stepping. That epiphany Davis had at halftime must have been percolating for some time. I’m glad he had the self-awareness and enough of an instinct for self-preservation to extricate himself from a situation that could have ended badly for him.
I write about Colin Kaepernick and, by extension, the NFL a lot. I don’t watch football, though, and Davis’s statement sort of gets to why. Withholding my viewership dovetails nicely with the boycott of the NFL Kaepernick’s supporters are staging, but that’s not why I stopped watching. CTE pushed me out.
I’d been a casual fan of the game, who on occasion paid close attention to NFL games during the playoffs, and I’d attend friends’ Super Bowl parties. I admire the complexity of the game, and the combination of athleticism and intelligence it takes to play it at the highest level. Nevertheless, as I learned more about CTE, watching players take some of those big hits and knowing what it was doing to their brains made me too squeamish to watch. (Those slides of cross-sections of Aaron Hernandez’s shrunken brain are some of the most horrifying images I’ve ever seen.)
The ethics of tackle football are for another essay, though. Davis’s controversial decision has sparked important discussions about when and how to quit a job.
Davis has received plenty of support for his decision. I’m in that camp. How dangerous his former profession is means workers like Davis have to be much more decisive about protecting themselves. Most of us aren’t at risk of a snapped neck when we clock in to work. In addition, pro football is dirty business. Players are tossed on the trash heap as soon as they’re no longer useful, and the violence of the play leaves many with lifelong health problems. Walking away in the middle of a game was unorthodox, but continuing to play with the wrong mindset, even for another half, would have been dangerous for Davis and the other players on the field.
From what I’ve seen, most of Davis’s detractors have framed their harsh criticism of him in terms of betrayal. He’s seen as having let down and abandoned his brothers who were depending on him. This language and why it’s being used in the context of employment needs to be examined. I also think we all need to consider seriously what it is we owe our employers and coworkers and what the proper boundaries for these relationships should be.
Is quitting a job suddenly because you believe it’s what’s best for you abandoning your coworkers? I don’t think so. Perhaps they may feel left in the lurch, but they’re not owed the sacrifice of another human being’s mental or physical welfare to maintain their own comfort in employment. In addition, outside of personal relationships that have developed beyond the workplace, I’m not even sure they’re owed an explanation that goes further than, “It’s time for me to move on.”
I understand that there is a camaraderie at work in professional sports that won’t arise in a cubicle farm. I also understand that the gladiatorial nature of football requires placing more trust in your coworkers than the average worker. Nevertheless, playing in the NFL is a job, and it’s one that comes with a host of tremendous pressures, chief among which are whether or not players will suffer debilitating physical injuries or permanently damage their brains. The notion of belonging to a brotherhood probably helps some players manage that stress more effectively. It’s worth considering that feeling compelled to develop and maintain these emotional ties is burdensome to others, who would rather come to work, perform their duties to the best of their ability, then head home to their real families.
Vontae Davis has unwittingly revealed the flawed way many of us have been taught to think about work and life. Our coworkers aren’t our family, and creating the expectation that they should be treated as such is harmful.
If there’s only one thing you take away from this article, please let it be that when emotionally loaded terms like “family”, “brother”, “duty”, and “loyalty” are used in the context of employment it is nearly always to exploit workers. It’s a tactic (intentional or not) to extract more labor without paying for its fair value. The praise for being a “good” family member is the reward that replaces wages. That’s not the arrangement workers make with their employers. We work in exchange for money and benefits. Collegial relationships are necessary and should be encouraged, of course. Close friendships and even romances will develop in most workplaces, but the people you work with are your colleagues, and you don’t owe them anything more than what it takes to get the job done well.
Be incredibly careful of people who consistently use language that should apply to familial bonds to talk about their professional relationships. If they’re in management or trying to climb the ladder, they’re often incredibly skilled manipulators who have mastered the art of extracting the value of other people’s labor without giving much in return. They also often find ways to take more credit for successes than they should and are experts at using “not a team player” arguments to pawn their failures off onto their colleagues.
It’s difficult not to fall for this line of manipulation. Being embraced as part of a family can feel welcoming and emblematic of respect. The sense of obligation that is created is quite powerful, though, and it is often abused. It is used to guilt people into doing more than was negotiated. If your job wants you to go above and beyond, they should compensate you properly for the additional labor you’re performing. If your health and safety requires you to quit, do so without any misgivings. When profit margins tighten, the axe falls mercilessly. It would behove more workers to embrace some of that same ruthlessness when it comes to making their own forward progress.
It’s all right to put yourself first. This is the most important lesson Vontae Davis has taught us. It’s all right to walk away. It was probably difficult for some of Davis’s teammates to learn that they weren’t as close to him as they thought, and I’m sure it was shocking to learn that a player who hadn’t been injured had not only taken himself out of the game but removed himself from the premises and retired from the profession. There is merit to the argument that Davis could have handled the situation better, but refusing to play the second half was the right call for him, as was walking away from the sport. He quit, and that’s all right.
Originally published on my Patreon.