Lessons to be learned from Andrew Luck, Leigh Griffiths and the influence of social media

This week saw one of the most surprising announcements in American sports history. Andrew Luck, star quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, decided to walk away from the game at the age of 29.

Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths took time out of football recently to battle mental health issues.
Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths took time out of football recently to battle mental health issues.

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The former No.1 pick of the NFL draft had been nominated to the Pro Bowl on four occasions in his seven-year career and was halfway through a five-year, $123 million contract. He's saying goodbye to $60 million by quitting, while also leaving the rest of the team high and dry two weeks before the season starts.

The Washington D.C. native explained that various injury problems throughout his career had caused him to lose his love of the game.

Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths took time out of football recently to battle mental health issues.

Beaten up as the result of poor blocking in his first few years, Luck was constantly in a state of being seriously injured or about to suffer one. He would go through the long haul of recovery before the cycle started again not long after he'd been deemed healthy, often while playing through the pain.

In years gone by, Luck would have been absolutely roasted for his decision. He would have been labelled selfish, a coward and ungrateful for the opportunity he'd been granted to play sport and get paid millions when so many people are starving in the world.

Instead, in 2019, the public were largely empathetic.

There's a greater understanding in society about the dangers of playing American football. There's also the comprehension that money isn't necessarily a cure for happiness. In Luck's case, it didn't matter how many millions of dollars he had in the bank, it wouldn't have made a difference if he suffered irreparable harm to himself. There are countless cases of former Gridiron stars who can barely walk in their retired years and, even more tragically, those who take the lives of themselves and/or others because they've been afflicted with mental illness as a result of severe brain trauma.

Listening to the various reactions from Luck's retirement, I drew some unexpected parallels to a story that shocked Scottish football last year: when Leigh Griffiths decided he needed some time away from the career he'd based his life around. The Celtic striker wasn't injured, not in a physical sense at least, but he was struggling with mental health issues.

A Scotland star, adored by fans of two of the biggest clubs in the country, had to learn once again how to be happy within himself.

Just like in the Luck instance, the general reaction was much more understanding than we would've seen in the past.

It's only really the last few years that we've truly begun to understand the importance of mental health and how terrifyingly destructive it can be for any individual, regardless of whether you're rich, poor, famous or otherwise.

Those old enough to remember former Aston Villa manager John Gregory's callous questioning of Stan Collymore, and what could he possibly be depressed about on £20,000 a week, will testify that Griffiths' eight-month absence would not have gone over too well had it occurred a decade or two earlier.

Social media has played a part in the changing of public opinion, even if it does have a deservedly bad reputation with regards to how it impacts the world in the present day.

Whether you're on Twitter or not, you should surely realise the platform goes a long way to setting the agenda.

And while it is rightly derided as an echo chamber, there are dissenting voices that still pierce through onto an individual user's timeline on any given day. Over the past decade those dissenting voices helped raise awareness of mental health issues until they grew enough that it was common understanding. Don't get me wrong, there's still a long way to go to truly fight off the stigma, but we're undeniably trending in the right direction.

The same can be said for the perception around injuries in the NFL. Instead of allowing the ignorant to mutter to their closest friends that "injuries happen, get on with it", knowledge has been allowed to spread to corners where it would not have done before. Twitter largely said Luck's decision was in his best interests and to hell with the rest, which massively influences the mainstream position.

Of course, we can't ignore the dangers of social media, even when it appears to be doing something positive. Twitter, in particular, has created a rage addiction among people, particularly younger people, in the 21st century and this shouldn't be treated lightly.

The overall takeaway from Griffiths' and Luck's decisions was that people are becoming less ignorant, but there are still those who subscribe to the outdated ideas. It is these people who tend to leave the lasting impression, because anger is a much strong reaction than mild pleasantness. It was the case in the Luck story from (who else?) Fox News, and it was the same with Griffiths when former SPL chief Roger Mitchell - who for some reason still counts as relevant in 2019 - used the number of children the Celtic player had "sired" with different mothers as a stick to beat him with at his lowest ebb.

There's some satisfaction to seeing these types wildly 'ratio'd' as the number of those hitting "reply" to call them a gibbering dinosaur far outweighs those who hit the "like" button. But when we've moved on to the next interaction it's the feeling of despondency, which comes from the reminder that these people are still prevalent in society, that tends to linger. It's only a microscopic emotional reaction, but if we add in the warring voices on climate change, political upheaval, immigration and woman's equality, among many others we see online every day, and there's enough to build up an unpleasant feeling around the state of the world at large regardless of which side you're on.

Writing personally, I didn't realise how damaging a place it could be until my own problems with anxiety reached their peak earlier this year. When they did I couldn't physically get myself to hit the Twitter logo on my smartphone, despite the fact I definitely have an addiction to the place, which I almost have to because of my job. I just knew it would make the tightness in my chest and the spinning thoughts in my head so much worse, so I stayed away until the symptoms had receded (thank you Citalopram).

We don't have to go cold turkey but we also don't have to get angry at those who aren't deserving of our anger. Roger Mitchell thinks Leigh Griffiths needs to give himself a shake because he has a few children to different mothers? Who cares? A previously unknown Rangers fan rejoices in the possibility "he'll never play football any more". Why bother highlighting it? They're not worth the social media notoriety.

Admittedly, it is easier said than done. There's still a line to straddle where such reactions can be used for good. As mentioned previously, dissenting voices have helped change the culture for better. But there are times when it's necessary to react and there are times when it isn't. If someone has 18 followers and generally tweet complete guff, their opinion doesn't need to be made known to thousands. And, believe me, there's little to be gained from delving into the hundreds of replies to major news stories, as tempting as it may be to Tom Daley your way down the rabbit hole.

Twitter can be a force for good and a force for bad. It's up to us how we use it. (Also they should ban Nazis.)