Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Let athletes retire when they're ready


I know this isn't realistic, but play along for a minute:

You're a middle-aged guy. You love your job. Sure, you've got enough money to buy a small island and still send your kids to Ivy League schools, but that's not the point. Did I mention that you love your job?

You're only 38 years old, and for your entire life you've poured your heart and soul into becoming as good of an employee at said job as possible. You know nothing else. Sure, you like to play poker with the fellas on Friday nights, but that's not exactly a time-consuming hobby.

The fact is, when you leave your dream job, when you decide to "retire," you really will be left with nothing. You'll spend more time with your family members, but even they won't be able to fill your days (heck, they're telling you that now). You're scared of feeling empty, as if you're wasting away the entire second half of your life.

When you could still be succeeding at the highest level of your profession...

Get the point? Are you in Brett Favre's cleats by now? If not, simply blame my journalistic skills.

But this isn't about me. Rather, this is about Favre, and every other professional athlete who decides they're not ready to retire -- and gets criticized for coming back.

That criticism is ridiculous. An athlete should get to be an athlete for as long as they can perform, for as long as an organization wants them. It's no different from other professions -- lawyers, doctors, veterinarians: Nobody ever tells them to retire at an early age and stay retired.

The problem here is a way of thinking about athletes. We see them as temporary forms of entertainment, as the leaders of our favorite teams. We don't view them as employees, as people interested in performing their jobs for as long as they can. Often times -- lost in the haze of ludicrous contracts -- I think we lose sight of just how much most athletes love their jobs, of the main reason why they've dedicated themselves to sports for so many years.

Favre is an example of what pro sports are all about. I'm not gonna say it's never been about the money for him, because at some moment in life -- before the big ranch and the multiple cars -- earning a living is the objective. But for the past several years, that certainly hasn't been a worry of his.

He plays because of his love, his passion, for the game. And if he wants to return to the NFL, he should go for it without thinking twice. Whether Green Bay takes him back or another team picks him up -- who the heck wouldn't? -- is up to them. There's no obligation there. But don't fault Favre if he indeed has that itch to play pro football again.

As some song goes, you don't know how good something is until it's out of your grasp.

I wrote a column over a year ago applauding Tiki Barber for retiring early. The New York Giants running back was clearly tired of the physical pounding his body took season after season, and he wanted to preserve his face for a broadcasting career -- which, by the way, is in full swing.

Barber was widely denounced for leaving the Giants at the age of 31 and with plenty of gas left in his tank. He shouldn't have been. The man had another calling, which he pursued only after giving all he had for the G-Men on the field. Some players aren't football lifers, many aren't like Favre.

Anyone who watched the Packers last season knows that Favre can still play, that his arm remains one of the league's strongest and his improvisational skills haven't deserted him. He came thisclose to leading Green Bay to the Super Bowl, and the memory of his last throw -- an overtime interception that led to New York's game-winning field goal in the NFC championship game -- has to haunt him.

In my mind, the Packers would be foolish not to welcome him back with open arms. Even if it's just a one-year deal, the decent chance to win one Super Bowl with Favre easily outweighs the uncertainty that will cloak Green Bay once the Aaron Rodgers Era officially begins. To simplify, Green Bay + Favre > Green Bay + Rodgers.

At least for now.

But if the Packers don't take Favre back, fine -- that's their decision. If he wants to play, he'll end up somewhere. And we should all relish the opportunity to watch him play again, just like we cherished the chance to see M.J. once again, and then again.

At the young age of 38, Favre might not be ready for retirement yet.

For the select few of us who love our jobs, we should be able to relate.


Sportsattitude said...

I have no issue with someone wanting to do what they love, but the fact is if this was the actual workplace someone who tried to pull this "I want to work for you/I might not want to work for you" scenario would have been whacked the very second it came up...not allowed to carry on for almost three years now. Of course, people should be able to pursue their passion and we should all be so lucky to actually like what we do for a living. That being said, the Green Bay Packers, like any business, have to look both short and long-term, maximize their investments, conduct business with an eye down the road, etc. This wishy-washy mess is not just Favre's doing, because the Packers have been enablers. Not any more, apparently. You make a very compelling case for Favre, but I for one wish he would Canton.

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