Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don't be the retiring type

Sometime within the next two months Brett Favre will choose to either retire from the NFL or return to the Vikings in 2010. A few months after that he'll change his mind, before making his final decision in late July. Each of those decisions will spawn dozens of columns and online stories. Some will applaud the decision, others will deride the change of heart. The rest will advise old No. 4 to finally retire.

That final category is one I really hope to avoid reading.

There's nothing worse than writers or fans who demand an athlete retire. Strike that. There's nothing worse than writers or fans who demand an athlete retire at the top of their game, so they can leave the sport while our memories of their abilities remain as pure and poignant as our memories of a first kiss.

I want the opposite. If an athlete retires, fine. But if they want to cling to a career with every last bit of savvy and dwindling ability in their arsenal, even better. Athletes should only quit when it's their call or when no team wants them. If that means their skills decline 75 percent, so be it. If that means they have to switch franchises three times in their late 30s and can only be used as a DH or a pinch-hitter, great. Keep playing as long possible. The guy's a former All-star guard but is now a 12th man on an NBA team that finishes six games under .500? Great. Keep getting beat on defense and airballing those three-pointers.

And don't worry about ruining a legacy.

Protecting their legacy. That's the phrase often used when talking about legendary athletes who hang on too long or retire at a young age. Magic Johnson hurt his legacy by coming back in 1996 as a beefy power forward who clashed with younger teammates. Michael Jordan damaged his legacy by returning with the Wizards in 2001 as an overweight shooting guard with a bum knee and an oversize ego.

The most famous example of an athlete damaging his legacy is probably Willie Mays. The phrase "stumbling around like Willie Mays with the Mets" has become as heinous a sports cliche as "we're just going to take things one game at a time." If the sports world insists on dragging an athlete's failing skills out for comparison every time a player is encouraged to hang up the cleats, this phrase should at least be updated with the times. Maybe, "it's more painful than watching Emmitt Smith stumble around with the Arizona Cardinals." Emmitt. There's another one who supposedly damaged his legacy by refusing to leave the sport when it was deemed appropriate by the masses.

But are the legacies really damaged, except in the minds of 40-year-olds who apparently have the reasoning skills and emotional maturity of 4-year-olds? Take Magic and Jordan, two players who have a permanent spot on every list made when ranking the top 5 players in NBA history. Magic didn't lose his slot to Isiah Thomas or Doc Rivers simply because his final season in the NBA ended with him being suspended for bumping a ref, followed by the Lakers flaming out in the playoffs against Houston. When people reflect on Magic's career, that season is now part of the discussion. So is The Magic Hour. And? Does that one season erase everything that happened between 1980 and 1991? Certainly not. In his career biography, it's simply another chapter, albeit one filled with slow trots up the court and off-the-mark jumpers instead of fastbreaks and on-the-mark passes. But why would that concern anyone? Same thing with Jordan. Michael Leahy's book When Nothing Else Matters superbly dissects Jordan's disastrous two-year stint in Washington, where the player who could once do no wrong suffered more failures than a one-term president. Those two years are now part of his permanent record, neatly filed away in a manila folder somewhere. But do those two years damage what he accomplished between 1985 and 1998? Certainly not.

I'm glad both players returned for those respective stints, no matter how different they were to the rest of their careers. I want to watch great athletes play as long as possible and it doesn't really matter to me whether they're as powerful as ever or as weak as a YMCA Sunday night gym warrior.

And while athletes are criticized for sticking around past their expiration date, they're often applauded if they supposedly have a good sense of timing when it comes to retirement. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders. Two guys who went out while still the best at what they did. Jordan accomplished this the first time he retired from the Bulls in 1993. And he did it again the second time he retired after the 1998 season. Such a perfect ending, sealing his legacy and a sixth title with that push-off and jumper against the Jazz in Game 6 of the Finals. It was the type of ending poets could have written about for another century. Then he had to go and ruin it by signing with the Wizards. For guys like Sanders and Brown, retiring when they did was right for them. That doesn't mean it's right for any other athlete and it certainly doesn't mean their way should be the standard for every other professional.

Sometimes retirement concerns focus on health, specifically in boxing and football. No one wants to see damaged or injured players become more damaged by refusing to retire. One more punch or one more sack and concussion apparently weigh heavy on the minds of those who chronicle the games. But even with these I'm a bit reluctant to ever say someone should stop. In the end, what knowledge do I have about a situation that the player and his doctors and team don't have? Does my ability to Google the effects of concussions provide an insight that's otherwise missing? Former Senator Bill Frist once took some much-deserved criticism for diagnosing Terri Schiavo by watching a video. He was actually at least a doctor, if an overly ambitious and politicized one. It was ridiculous for him to offer up a medical opinion on someone he'd never checked and never knew. So I'd also feel slightly foolish demanding that an athlete retire, simply because my medical opinion is it'd be his best option for maintaining his good health.

This phenomenon seems unique to sports. Is anyone upset that Spielberg didn't retire after Schindler's List, when he was at the top of his game? Shouldn't Sully have grounded himself after landing in the Hudson, instead of returning to the air a few months later? He has as much chance of topping that performance as Jordan did of besting his shot against the Jazz. Yet obviously no one cares. J.D. Salinger died Wednesday. He hadn't published anything since 1965 and The Catcher in The Rye came out in 1951. Was the world better off because he sealed his literary legacy by refusing to publish second-rate material the past 45 years? Certainly his detachment from public life added layers of intrigue to his life, but millions would have been content to watch him damage his reputation as a writer, if that would have meant being able to read a few more novels or short stories from a legendary author.

At the same time, there are some occupations where people should quit before their skills suffer. Like, say, brain surgeons.

But sports are what fascinate. Fans and writers feel a connection that's unique to athletes. We demand that players love their sport and the competition, but express surprise when they're unwilling and unable to give up the only thing they've known for 20 years. We act disappointed that they linger on the bench and on our screens, as if anyone should be expected to say goodbye to millions of dollars and millions of cheers simply because it'd be convenient for our own psyches. Hang on until someone says it's time to go.

An athlete should retire when they believe it's time to be done, and not a moment sooner. No one has the right to tell them when to quit. It's always their choice, no matter how many great memories they've provided in the past and no matter how few memories they provide in their twilight years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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