Retiring the Side
Why are sportswriters so eager to tell aging stars they've "stayed too long" in the game?
New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden laments today Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre's refusal to retire from the NFL "gracefully" ("Favre Has Finally Reached the Point of No Return," Oct 12, 2010).
Journalistic moaning about the Gifted Athlete Who Has Overstayed His Welcome is a sports-page perennial. Sportswriters love nothing more than to lecture players on the opportune time for them hang up their helmets, gloves, or shoes.
But what makes Rhoden column unique in the genre is that it's not Favre's on-field performance that led the sportswriter to that opinion. Indeed, Rhoden notes that "Favre continues to be a master of the big moment in the dramatic spot," and the quarterback played a very strong second half in last night's loss against the New York Jets. Rhoden believes the widely repeated but unproved allegations about Favre's personal conduct should force him out of the game. (Favre allegedly sent photos of his genitals, sexually harassing text messages, and lewd voicemails to a "game-day hostess" for the Jets when he played for the team in 2008.)
Rhoden declares three times that the "party is over" for Favre, and concludes that the allegations have "imperiled" his reputation. If only Favre had retired from football after his 2007 season with the Green Bay Packers, "where his eccentricities were indulged, nurtured and enabled," the piece argues, he would still be enjoying his old popularity.
The sporting press' dissatisfaction with Favre isn't new. He's been chiggering his way under their skin since late 2005, when he first began playing Hamlet about returning the next season. "If I had to pick right now and make a decision, I would say I'm not coming back," Favre said in January 2006, before announcing in April 2006 that he would return. Favre has extended his will-he-or-won't-he act every season since, bedeviling the press with wild hints that he's going to quit the game before returning. (Slate charted Favre's 2010 preseason stutter-step.)
Of course, had Favre listened to the sportswriters who would have players retire at or near their prime, he wouldn't have enjoyed his spectacular 11-game run with the Jets in the 2008 season. Nor would his super-spectacular 2009 season with the Vikings, which took him one play from the Super Bowl, have happened. Even though Rhoden acknowledges the greatness of those two seasons, he still thinks they should have been cues for Favre to retire, not continue.
Why are sportswriters so invested in sports stars retiring while still on the top or, as Rhoden puts it, with their "legacy intact"? Sportswriters hardly ever command average players to quit. Michael Jordan endured the chastising nonsense from the sporting press when he returned to the NBA's Washington Wizards in 2001. The Wizard years weren't career-best for Jordan, but by any other measure they were great and meaningful. Yet the sporting press would have you believe that playing two years for the average Wizards somehow diminished Jordan's championship seasons with the Chicago Bulls.
Favre and Jordan are only the most conspicuous examples of this sporting-press gripe. A brief Nexis consultation reveals sportswriters complaining about Scottie Pippen, Emmitt Smith, Johnny Unitas, Luc Robitaille, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Jerry Rice, Sugar Ray Leonard, Charles Barkley, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joe Louis, and Eric Dickerson staying in the game too long. A longer database search would uncover scores more.
The athlete in decline who decides to leave the game on his own timetable does no harm to anybody. What fan doesn't enjoy seeing his favorite star one more time? Only sportswriters cherish storybook career-finishes. They want Ted Williams to hit a home run in his last at-bat, because that's a prettier story to write than chronicling a superstar who goes out stumbling—like Willie Mays. If sportswriters had their way, every star would die of Lou Gehrig disease during his last dance on the field, the court, or the rink.
In this regard, sportswriters are more sentimental than any fan. God forbid that a great player—or even a marginal one—should extend his tour in a game he loves, perhaps even helping his team in the process and cashing a few more payroll checks.