When the news of Winnipeg Blue Bombers' quarterback Robert Marve retiring broke earlier this week, it may not have seemed to be a big deal to many. Yes, Marve showed some potential in his two seasons in Winnipeg, particularly this year, but he was already on the six-game injured list thanks to a knee injury and appeared to be behind both Drew Willy and Matt Nichols in their long-term plans, so this wasn't necessarily hugely consequential for the Bombers. Marve could possibly have turned into a solid CFL player in future seasons with improvement and opportunity, but he wasn't there yet, and there's no guarantee he would have ever reached that level. Moreover, while Marve is just 26, he'd already suffered several significant knee injuries (including three torn ACLs in college), so his retirement isn't necessarily earth-shattering when viewed in isolation. When considered as part of the larger picture of younger players leaving the CFL, though, Marve's decision to retire is interesting. It's another suggestion of the forces this league has to compete with in its quest to retain players, including health, other football opportunities and other career opportunities.
It's likely impossible to catalogue all the CFL players who have retired at 30 or younger in recent years, but here's a start: Armond Armstead (from the NFL, at 23), Andrew Woodruff (at 28), Dimitri Tsoumpas (28), Pat White (29), Matthieu Proulx (29) and Brandon London (30). Those guys have retired for different reasons, of course; Woodruff, Tsoumpas and White's retirements revolved around concussions, while Armstead's was about health concerns thanks to an ongoing heart issue (which he sued USC over in a suit that was eventually settled), Proulx's was about an accumulation of different injuries and London wanted to go explore a media career. They do have something in common, though; each of them decided it was no longer worth their while to keep playing football.
That's something we're seeing in the NFL these days, too, with the retirements of young players like Chris Borland (24), Anthony Davis (25), Jake Locker (26), Jason Worilds (27) and Patrick Willis (30). Again, their reasons are diverse; Borland was specifically concerned about concussions while Davis said he wanted his "brain and body to heal," while Worilds said he wanted to pursue other interests and Willis cited an accumulation of injuries. So, this is far from a problem that only applies to the CFL.
The NFL has one great advantage, though; it's offering huge amounts of money and fame. The NFL's minimum active-roster salary this year is $435,000, more than anyone in the CFL makes except the very top quarterbacks. The NFL minimum practice-roster salary is $6,600 a week, more than $100,000 a year (so more than most CFL players make). The CFL simply can't compete on those fronts, and that means both that the NFL has an edge in recruiting talent (the CFL is generally taking players the NFL overlooks for one reason or another) and that players have more reasons to keep playing in the NFL than they do in the CFL. Thus, if there are more people in general looking to get out of football earlier than they might normally, it stands to reason that would hit the CFL even harder than the NFL.
This doesn't mean that the CFL will have no players left. As discussed in our analyses of off-season free agent camps, there are still countless players with promising college backgrounds willing to take the longest of shots at the CFL. Even if the trend of players leaving young rises, there will be more to take their place, and even if football participation rates are trending downwards, there's no imminent risk of there not being enough talented players for colleges and then for the NFL and CFL. Football is not drying up overnight.
However, the CFL should still take early retirements very seriously, and each case should cause the league to ponder if there was anything more it could have done. Yes, there are replacements for these players, but a. those players weren't picked over the retirees in the first place and b. they don't have the CFL experience the retiring players do. Thus, there's probably somewhat of a drop-off from a talent perspective, at least while the new players pick up CFL experience, and that's concerning for the league.
Is a case like Marve's preventable? Not necessarily, especially considering his injury history. Still, his case should be viewed in the context of the numbers of quarterback injuries across the league, and should be a data point in the consideration of if there's anything else the CFL can do to reduce those. Similarly, players like White, Tsoumpas and Woodruff who retired thanks to concussions should be considered; the CFL has taken some measures on concussion prevention, diagnosis and treatment, but are they doing enough? This isn't meant to blame the league for the recent wave of young retirements; each player had their own reasons, and some to all of their retirements may have been unpreventable regardless of anything the CFL did. The league does have to consider these cases carefully, though, and it needs to be contemplating what more it can do to keep players healthy and keep them around. Maintaining the calibre and health of a sport isn't just about player recruitment, it's about player retention, and cases like Marve's illustrate that.