Opinion

The dilemma of retirement from sports

Sports heroes have a tough time saying goodbye, and for good reason.

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    Out of retirement: Brett Favre may meet similar mixed results as other athletes that have 'unretired,' and have come back for another season.
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    Out of retirement: Pitcher Roger Clemens threw a record number of strikeouts after unretiring, but ended his career as a proud lion laid low.
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    Out of retirement: Dana Torres broke an American record.
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    Out of retirement: Michael Jordan also turned heads, but ended his career as proud a lion laid low.
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My wife and I have a sworn pact: As soon as she notices that I'm losing it upstairs – or not having fun – she'll force me to retire. And I'll do the same for her.

That's the deal, anyhow.

Retiring is hard. It's an admission – to the world and to yourself – that you may not be the same person you used to be. Nobody wants to think that their skills, energy, or desire has changed. And nobody wants to tell their partner that, either.

It's particularly hard for professional athletes, whose skills seem to deteriorate much more quickly. That's why so many of them overstay their welcome, refusing to quit when they should. It's also why they keep coming back, even after they do retire.

And that brings us to Brett Favre.

Last March, Mr. Favre held a tearful press conference to announce his retirement from the Green Bay Packers. Favre led the Packers to the 2008 NFC title game, where they fell in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But he couldn't run or throw the way he used to, and he knew it. So it was time to move on.

Earlier this month, however, before the 38-year-old Favre had been officially released from his contract, he told the Packers that he wants back in. And now it's the Packers who want to move on, grooming a new quarterback to fill Favre's huge cleats. But they're reluctant to release Favre, because they wouldn't get any compensation from the next team that signed him. And they don't want to trade him to another contender, either.

You can sympathize with both sides here. Clearly, the Packers need to prepare for a future without Brett Favre. But for Favre, the future is now. Just last January, he was a single interception away from the Super Bowl. With the right team around him, who's to say he couldn't get there next year?

Actually, history does. When pro athletes un-retire near the end of their careers, in search of glory, they rarely find it. Instead, they humiliate themselves.

Consider baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, the undisputed king of the long sports goodbye. Clemens retired in 2003, unretired in 2004, retired in early 2006, unretired in the middle of the same season, then retired again at the end of 2007. Along the way, to be fair, Clemens received his record 7th Cy Young Award. But by the end, his playing was an embarrassment. He won just six games in his final season, plagued by injuries and – later – by allegations of steroid use.

Then there's Michael Jordan. After leading the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships, Jordan quit to pursue a career in baseball. He came back two years later to win three more championships, then retired again. But when he returned a third time, at the age of 38, his game was gone. He ended his career like Clemens, a proud lion laid low.

Recently Dana Torres came back to break the American swimming record, following two retirements and a pregnancy. This summer, at age 41, she'll become the first US swimmer to compete in five different Olympics.

And I'll be rooting for her. Eventually, though, Favre and Torres could suffer the fate of Clemens and Jordan. With the right team, to be sure, Favre might win another championship. More likely, he'll fade into mediocrity. And it won't be pretty to watch.

So why can't we take our eyes off it? The spectacle of the unretired athlete echoes one of the oldest narratives in Western mythology: An old hero returns, vanquishing his foes and reclaiming a lost love. Think of Orpheus, who descended into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice; or Odysseus, sailing the seas for a decade before reuniting at Ithaca with Penelope. But in the case of the pro athlete, we fans are the former lover. And we are fickle wives, dumping our heroes as soon as we see that they are human after all. Brett Favre misses the excitement and the adulation of pro football, and who can blame him? But one day, very soon, we'll turn away, in sadness and anger, wondering why he couldn't get out when the getting was good.

And we'll wonder about ourselves, too. In the drama of sports retirements, we see small reminders of a basic human dilemma: When do you quit? I'm trusting my wife to tell me.

Whether I'll listen, of course, is another story altogether.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published in the fall.

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