Why Legendary Athletes Retire Too Late

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John Updike once described retirement as “the little death that awaits athletes.” If this is right, then much of the recent news from the sports world has been pretty morbid.

Chris Borland, Jake Locker and Patrick Willis surprised almost everyone by retiring from the NFL just a few short years after beginning their respective careers. Another young NFL player, Chris Conte, decided not to retire early — despite having suffered multiple concussions and other injuries — so that he could continue to pursue his childhood dream. And at the other end of the NFL career timeline we see Peyton Manning, who made some news of his own recently by also deciding not to retire — much to the delight of Broncos fans everywhere (and those Tennessee Volunteers fans who still root for whatever team Manning happens to be playing for).

Manning, of course, is not the only superstar who continues to play long after his legacy appears to be secure. Kobe Bryant and Alex Rodriguez are both well past their (dominant) prime, and yet they continue to play. These three examples represent numerous cases throughout recent sports history in which an athlete postpones retirement despite having been rewarded (and awarded) handsomely throughout their career, and despite the fact that another season is unlikely to produce additional championships or awards. In fact, in many of these cases an additional season is probably more likely to tarnish rather than add additional shine to the legacy.

I’ll leave it to others to discuss whether these decisions to postpone retirement are sound; I’m more interested in asking what it is that drives these athletes to continue playing for so long. Is it a love for the game, or perhaps a desire to make more money? Clearly love for the game plays a role, and a multimillion dollar contract isn’t exactly a deterrent. But neither of those can be the entire story.

Consider the love of the game. It does seem as though some athletes hang on for a long time simply because they love their sport. Rickey Henderson, for example, a record holder many times over and a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer, wanted to keep playing the game he loved for as long as possible. (Pop quiz: Which teams did Henderson play for during the last three years of his professional career? If you said “Newark Bears, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Surf Dawgs, then go to the head of the class.) At the end of his career, when he was offering to donate his salary to charity, he clearly didn’t care about the money; he just wanted to play for as long as he felt able to.

This love for the game, however, is not always what drives athletes to continue competing well past their prime: the desire for money often plays a role as well. Take the example of Muhammad Ali, a superstar athlete if ever there was one. And yet the end of his career was a sports tragedy, brought about in large part by a perceived need for money. He lost three of his last four fights, including a particularly ugly knockout at the hands of Larry Holmes that may have contributed to the severity of his battle with Parkinson’s syndrome. According to those who were part of contract negotiations for the Holmes fight, a desire for financial security played a big part in Ali’s decision to go through with it.

Henderson kept playing because he loved baseball, not because he needed more money. Ali, on the other hand, kept boxing because he needed the money, not because he loved the sport. So it can’t be all about the love of the game, or all about the money, because there are numerous cases like those two that are missing one or the other. Is there something deeper going on here, some common thread that is always present but often masked by the surface-level desires and motivations? I think there is, and I would like to suggest that it’s a quest or immortality.

So how does a quest for immortality figure in to cases like these? Well, it seems that at least part of what makes life meaningful for us is the knowledge (or even just the hope) that we will leave some sort of legacy after we’re gone — something to represent how we spent our short time here on earth. Part of leaving a legacy has to do with impacting the world in some positive way, but another essential part of leaving a legacy is simply being remembered.

And being remembered is a kind of immortality. We aren’t (yet) at a point where our bodies can live forever, but in the ideal case our memory can live forever, or at least for as long as there are people around to do the remembering. (Perhaps this is what James Dean was getting at when he said that “the only immortality is fame.”) So we all want to leave a legacy, and part of leaving a legacy is producing a memory that, in the best cases, will live on indefinitely. Thus, whether we realize it or not, part of what we’re craving when we want to leave a legacy is a kind of immortality.

One problem with this desire for memorial immortality (“memortality”?) is that it’s never quite clear when it has been satisfied. (How could you ever know that you’ve done enough to ensure that your memory will live on long after you’re gone?) Most of us have very little shot at even this type of immortality, but superstar athletes have at least given themselves a fighting chance. So why not play one more year, increasing the chances of that memory living on indefinitely? Although I doubt many athletes consciously reason like this, I do think it’s plausible to claim that something like this is going on behind the scenes. This, it seems to me, is the best general explanation of why professional athletes often continue to play long after they’ve passed their prime.

Thus we return to the choice that all athletes face as they ponder the “little death” that awaits them — a choice that is especially fraught for superstars such as Peyton Manning or Kobe Bryant. For athletes like this, who are literally world-famous, the question of whether to retire or not is a choice between ensuring at least another year of fame (and therefore an increased chance of achieving immortality), or starting the long walk toward obscurity.

Kind of makes the answer seem obvious, does it not?

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