For the love of the game ... and money
Sunday, 03 August 2008

From Brett Favre to Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali, sports legends just can't seem to stay retired

Robert Weintraub

Not quite six months ago, I wrote about the retirement of Brett Favre, longtime quarterback and standard-bearer for the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League. Near the end, I noted that nothing would surprise me less than Favre growing restless on his Mississippi manse and coming back to play again.

I confess I was unprepared for the epic soap opera that would ensue, and Favre's Machiavellian methods in appearing to force the franchise to either let him come back (which they would prefer not to do, having groomed replacement Aaron Rodgers all offseason) or trade him away to another team (another most unpalatable alternative from the Packers' perspective).

But the idea that a great athlete would retire, hold the requisite tearful press conference and then turn up shortly afterward and say "just kidding!" is hardly revolutionary. Michael Jordan did it twice, although X-Files fans would tell you that the first time was mere cover for a gambling ban by the NBA.

The second time was more revelatory. Jordan joined the Washington Wizards in a general manager role, but after proving maladroit at selecting the Next Jordan, he decided to suit up the real thing. Unfortunately for His Airness, his legions of fans and the league, the older Jordan wasn't as high-quality a vintage. Commenting on his advanced age, Shaquille O'Neal said it perfectly: "Bro, 38 ain't 28."

Nevertheless, Jordan couldn't stay away from the competition, the companionship, the endless rush of the life of a professional athlete. Endless rounds of golf and dancing the night away gets a bit boring and pathetic when not thrown into relief by competing at the highest levels. Many great athletes are spotlit from their early teenage years onward. When the time comes to step away from the kliegs, the sudden darkness can feel awful threatening.

Naturally, MJ toiling for Washington (a team that is to basketball prestige as the Sahara is to rainfall) instead of the Chicago Bulls (whose arena is fronted by a statue of Jordan in full flight) was a depressing sight, especially as his aged knees crumpled under the nightly pounding the NBA requires. After mustering two lackluster seasons, by his lofty standards, Jordan finally called it quits.

Another aspect in un-retirement is economic. Boxers in particular are vulnerable to this symptom, often falling prey to dubious money managers and pissing away giant sums on exotic pets and multiple mansions (see Tyson, Iron Mike), or lacking the will to resist one more (multi-zeroed) payday. Even gigantic earners like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard succumbed and climbed once more into the ring, in Ali's case with frightening and sad results. Hitters from Hearns to Holmes have logged additional and unnecessary blows to the head, with resulting damage to their lucidity, in the name of greenbacks.

Favre is coming off one of his best seasons, and clearly money is no object (indeed, the Packers are reportedly offering him $20m over 10 years to stay retired). His unretirement smacks more of performance art than genuine change of heart - a career move in itself, like Jay-Z calling it a day with the Black Album, then dropping Kingdom Come a short time later.

Suckas didn't think I meant it, did ya?! Like the estimable Mr Carter, there is simply too much value left in Favre for him to walk away, both for him and the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has already stated that the league is better with Favre playing, a tacit pardon for his diva-like ways of hogging media attention.

Whether you love the fact Brett is apparently back or lambaste him for hypocrisy, one thing is certain - his eventual, actual retirement won't bring the gushers of praise this one did. Because when it comes to athletes staying retired, best to assume it's only hypothetical.

Robert Weintraub is a freelance writer/TV producer based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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