July 24, 2009

Sally Jenkins, of the DC Post, remembered Bette Davis who said, “I will not retire while I’ve still got my legs, and my makeup box.” “To some people, gray-stubbled Brett Favre looks ridiculous chasing a job with the Minnesota Vikings at 39. He’s the sports version of an actress hanging around with too much powder and lipstick on her face. But if we learn nothing else from the events of this summer, it should be that we cheat ourselves out of meaningful performances when we sentence athletes to old age prematurely. One of these days, a golfer older than 50 will win a major championship, but it won’t be because his audience encouraged him to keep playing.
When an athlete renounces his retirement, most of us groan. We complain they don’t know when to get off the stage, and that they will tarnish our memories by gimping around as less than what they were. Somehow, we got the idea that their bodies and their legacies are our personal property. We want them to remain ideals, and don’t want the sadness of watching them grow old. But that’s our problem, not theirs.
Athletes such as Favre have it right. Studies show that retirement is no good for you. Even if you hate the job you go to every day, sudden abrupt inactivity is a bad idea. A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes” studied people in complete retirement over six years. It found that retirement led to a 5 to 6 percent increase in illness, a 6 to 9 percent decline in mental health, and a 5 to 16 percent increase in mobility difficulties.
The study also suggested that when retirement is involuntary, the symptoms — which can range from expanding waistlines to depression to tobacco and alcohol use — tend to be even worse. Forced retirement is exactly what athletes face: They are cut, released, or injured, and then there is the more subtle pressure of being continually told that they should go out on top, because it’s a sign of neediness or weakness to hang around.
As Bill Bradley once said, “An athlete has two deaths.” The loss of purpose, and of a reassuring regimen, can leave athletes feeling aimless to the point of
desperation. “You wake up one day on the other side of the moon,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once told me, after retiring from the NBA at 42. Jabbar initially struggled so badly with retirement that he actually sold his house. He woke up one day and decided it was too depressingly dark for him.
The conventional wisdom is that athletes who go out on top are being true to their greatness. In fact, they are being untrue to themselves. Great champions are in the business of exhausting themselves. They aren’t content as long as they feel there is something left, and to waste any fraction of their capacities feels, to them, like a sin against nature. Their every instinct tells them to use themselves up. As spectators, we have no right to contradict them. “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,” Vince Lombardi once said.
Nolan Ryan got it right when he played baseball until he was 46, and so did Satchel Paige, playing until he was 59. George Foreman got it right when he won the IBF and WBA titles by flooring Michael Moorer at the age of 45, and Dara Torres got it right when she won two silvers in Beijing at 40.
Martina Navratilova is still getting it right, playing competitive tennis past the age of 50. Saw her just the other day; she’s got a better physique than most American teenagers. She made the Wimbledon final at 38, and won a Wimbledon doubles title at 49. Although she finally retired from the professional tennis tour in 2006, she is spending this summer playing World Team Tennis.
None of which she would have done had she listened to the drumbeat of advice telling her to give it up over the last three decades.
“I sure felt that push from the press,” she says. “When I lost a match in my 20s, it was because I had a bad day or someone just played really well. When I lost a match in my 30s, it was invariably because I was too old. I mean, I won two more Wimbledon singles titles after they tried to retire me. For that matter there were a few articles when I was 25 saying I should probably call it quits, that my best days were behind me. It is peculiar.”
Consider a great brain surgeon, or an architect, Navratilova says. If a young gun comes along who’s better, no one would suggest they quit.
The next time an athlete has a question about whether to stay in the game, the next time Favre debates his arm strength, or Armstrong questions his legs, they should remember the words of another Armstrong, who stayed in his own profession until the day he died.
“Musicians don’t retire,” Louis Armstrong said. “They stop when there’s no more music in them.”



Tom Robinson of HamptonRoads.com talked about the world of sports, society, and the relationship between the two.                                                                                          
“Sports drone on here in summer’s haze. Did the Dodgers clinch the National League West yet? Is that relentless bike race finally through Stage 78? Y’all nudge me when Federer and Nadal arrive at the U.S. Open, OK?
Ah, but one thing remains fresh and consistent as ever: the flow of sports into courts. It is a brisk, befuddling and even a bizarre thing, the onslaught of
jurisprudence into the business of our games.
Wake up and smell the torts. An inarguable fact is that athletes, personalities, teams and leagues simply spend inordinate gobs of time and money suing.
Discussing suing. Threatening to sue. Being sued. Defending suits. Settling suits.
 So even as Michael Vick’s bankruptcy situation crawls along with brain-numbing inertia… as Vick himself sheds his federal-custody GPS chip… as the crazy Plaxico Burress self-wounding case gets tabled… our dockets choke with dizzying legal paper.
I’m not even talking about the chambers of Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who with a word could smite Vick’s and Burress’ comebacks. I’m talking wild stuff like the civil suit against Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger brought by an unnamed casino worker for an alleged year-old sexual assault.
I’m talking stubborn stuff like the two Minnesota Vikings defensive linemen fighting the NFL over their four-game suspensions for failing drug tests. Idealistic stuff like former college athletes – collected by seasoned NCAA tormentor/shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro and fronted by ex-UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon – going after the NCAA with a class-action suit for using their images for profit in video games and such.
Mushrooming stuff like the Jeremy Mayfield-NASCAR ugly-fest involving Mayfield’s supposed use of methamphetamine.
And then, mega-important stuff like the NFL asking the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the NFL a single entertainment business competing as one, rather than 32 separate businesses competing against each other.
But while I’m no Denny Crane, bless his late, great fictional heart, I’ve read enough to know the Supreme Court thing is what really has players in the sports-law arena on edge.
Basically, an Illinois cap-making company sued, wouldn’t you know, on anti-trust grounds when the NFL sold its exclusive apparel rights to Reebok. The NFL prevailed, but the cap company pursued the fight. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. And the NFL, sensing sweeping anti-trust immunity with a favorable ruling that could, according to some experts, completely rock major league sports, eagerly awaits the decision due next summer.
In any case, the Jumbotron will register another legal winner and loser. Just in time, no doubt, for opening statements in the next dozen sports-court dramas.


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