Open Mic: Retirement: A Four-Letter Word?

Andrew StevensCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2008

Retirement, for those of us in civilian life, is a stage of life that one attends after decades of hard work.  One can imagine time with the grandchildren, trips abroad, leisurely reading, or even a hobby.  In today's economic climate, one also imagines struggles with the insurance and/or the medical industry.  However, for those in the sports world, deciding how and when to retire tends to be less mundane and yet more difficult.  In fact, retirement today for top pro athletes is fraught with second-guessing, team pressures, and endless media coverage.

Being a professional athlete requires a type of commitment, both physical and mental, that is rivaled by few careers in the United States and abroad.  Your job, for as long as you are part of a team, is to be in the best physical and mental shape to perform your tasks on the field, pitch, ice, court, etc.  You have to prepare, constantly, for the next game, the next team, the next play.  You have to be vary of sycophants and groupies trying to take your money or time. 

This preparation and wariness occurs throughout one's career.  In addition, an athlete will play through pain, play while on painkillers, and even play quickly after surgeries.  It is unfathomable to the average person what kind of mental and physical commitment it takes to be a pro athlete.  And the prize, after the years of playing, is sometimes crippling ailments and, if one is not careful, financial hardships.  Now, in this time of $4 dollar gasoline it's difficult for your writer to discuss the financial hardships of millionaire ball players.  But they do occur.  And the life-long damages to the body and mind can be real.  In particular, NFL players tend to have greatly shortened life spans because of the violence and injuries that occur in the game.

After all this commitment and a lifetime of dedication, some atheletes cannot simply walk out the door.  They have to be pushed.  The problem is that pro atheletes retire at an age where most of us in the non-sports world are just hitting our stride in careers.  They have decades ahead of them after retirement and have no idea how to fill the time.  All they know is the field and the team.  The other issue is the god-like celebrity status that sports figures have attained in our modern sports media world. 

If I'm in my mid-30's and have been a pro athlete since my early 20's, I have known nothing but fame and fortune for over a decade.  That, in itself, can be addicting.  Who wouldn't want to continue to live in the world of suspended adolescence that is the life a sports star?  It's a magical life.  However, some athletes get it, and retire at the right time.  Tiki Barber is one of them.  His retirement was done in a way that allowed for grace, dignity, and a minimum of distractions for the team (now during the season he was a distraction, but that's a different story).  Brett Favre, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, has yet to realize the same lessons that Barber did, and it's becoming a problem for his team and career.

Brett Favre has accomplished everything that an NFL quarterback can accomplish.  The yards, touchdowns, and MVPs speak for themselves.  Favre was a gift to a Green Bay organization that was struggling to be relevant again in the 1990's NFL.  Favre should be, at age 38, at a point where he says enough is enough.  And he did, in March. 

But it's now July, and he's "getting the itch".  This desire to come back has put the league and the media into a frenzy.  Daily reports come out of ESPN regarding Favre's plans and status.  Favre unfortunately has held the Packers hostage with his on-again, off-again retirement plans.  By wanting to come back, he has created a mess that Roger Goodell and the Packers have to clean up.

The solution to the Favre situation will present itself in the upcoming days or weeks.  He will be traded, and, as a Jets fan, I hope he's with Gang Green.  However, the Favre saga is simply a public example of the many private struggles that pro athletes go through.  Do I really want to give up a life of fame and fortune?  Do I really want to get away from teammates that I consider family members?  Do I have ailments that need to be dealt with, and are those ailments crippling?  What am I going to do with the rest of my life?  This questions are private questions, and the answers only lie within individuals who are retiring.  No one else is in a position to speculate, lay blame, or decide for them.