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In the Gloaming: The Aging Athlete in Public Memory

Surely, past-their-prime athletes must realize that their dim prospects are only darkened by the reflective glow of glories past.

"What we do in life echoes in eternity."


"See it comin' and you can't get away -- that was age." Muhammad Ali, reflecting on his lopsided defeat at the fists of former sparring partner Larry Holmes, was talking about the punches being thrown his way. He could as easily have been talking about fate, though. At the end of his unrivaled career, Ali looked desperate and slow against Holmes, eventually suffering the ignominy of having the towel thrown in by his trainer, Angelo Dundee. Unable to accept the inevitable decline of his once unmatched skills, Ali had stepped into the ring one time too many. That night in Las Vegas, his thrilling triumphs in Manila and Zaire were far away, and long ago.

Of course, Ali was not the first, and certainly not the last, athlete to make this mistake. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player on the planet, finished his career at a great remove from the championship form which won him fame. Instead of donning the iconic Chicago Bulls uniform, he ended his time in the NBA as a Washington Wizard, amongst a rag-tag band of youngsters and middling role players that lost more games than they won for the fifth consecutive season. His miraculous game-winning shots in the playoffs over Cleveland's Craig Ehlo or Utah's Bryon Russell were now the stuff of commercials and nostalgic highlight reels.

And now another athlete looks to follow the woeful path of the past-his-prime superstar. Brett Favre, having tearfully announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers in March of this year, created an uproar in July and August by changing his mind. Initially coy about his reversal, the Favre situation built into a media frenzy that culminated in his own ticker heading on ESPN's news scroll. Eventually, Favre announced his intentions to return, was rebuffed by the Packers (who are attempting to move on with Favre's younger backup, Aaron Rodgers), and agreed to a trade to the New York Jets.

Despite his age (38), despite his storied legacy as a Green Bay Packer (he holds the record for most passing yards, most touchdown passes, most career victories, and many other marks), and despite the mediocre prospects of the Jets as a team (which shares a division with the perennially dominant New England Patriots), Favre has decided to once again take the field. And while football fans and pundits everywhere wonder how he'll fare in the coming season, the bigger puzzle is just why Favre decided to come back at all.

Clearly there is a powerful force compelling athletes in Favre's position to shrug off the overwhelming evidence of their circumstance and rush headlong toward what can only pale in comparison to their past performances. It may be that Favre, who won 13 games last season with the Packers, retains a good measure of his vitality as a Jet. It is almost universally assumed, though, that his team won't win anywhere near 13 games this season, and will be lucky to make the playoffs at all. In fact, given his age and the status of the linemen in front of him, Favre's chances of serious injury seem higher than his chances for success.

So what could it be that keeps these athletes from recognizing the dingy gloom that surrounds them in the twilight of their careers? Surely they must realize that their dim prospects are only darkened by the reflective glow of glories past. What might be more than evident to us, however, may be difficult for them to see. The true measure of their abilities, in the end, takes the form of another, invisible competition, which pits their bodies against the relentless encroachment of time. Though we see them compete against one another, each of them must do battle individually with age -- a contest whose score is not always evident.

Perhaps, then, Ali, Jordan, and now Favre truly believe(d) themselves capable of moving forward to the past. Their real motivations, despite the best efforts of the heaving throng of sports journalists, are likely to remain a mystery. Instead, we might better understand how our idea of an athlete's legacy is formed and maintained, which has much more to do with the people watching the games than the ones playing them.

This is because, for all his accomplishments, Favre, like all other athletes, is a recipient of glory, not a manufacturer. Instead, it's the work of fans and commentators to bestow accolades or issue criticisms. If an athlete achieves hero-status, that's only through the machinations of our own mythologizing. The hyperboles we assign to their play make them transcendent; they are, in this way, real products of our collective imagination. It's not that Favre's a wonderful person by any sort of objective standard. Rather, we've collectively (if unconsciously) determined to transform his actions into the stuff of legend.

In this way, the true custodian of an athlete's legacy is not the athlete him or herself. It's us, the fans. We maintain their image, an idea that is at once permanent and ephemeral, subject to collective whim and shorn up by the sheer force of our unspoken will. This is why, for Favre -- as for Ali, as for Jordan -- what he does at the end of his career, no matter how closely scrutinized in the coming season, is destined to fade into insignificance. Barring the miraculous or the bizarre, his image has already been cast.

This is both a good thing and bad thing for Favre and his ilk. On the one hand, public memory can serve as a kind of insulation that preserves the idea of an athlete from the wear and tear of egotism, foolishness, and the indignities of age. On the other, our joint imagination is at the same time both the one thing that determines their standing, and the one thing they can't control. There are those who see Favre's return as a final chance at greatness. But that notion fails to understand that the decision to see Favre as great has long since been made. Accordingly, what comes after is practically guaranteed to be forgotten.

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