Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Favre Crisis: I Blame the Sportswriters

Brett Favre is playing out the Great American Sports Opera about the Retiring Great--the ICON. That's the legendary athlete who can feel his time running out and wants to get out on top. So he tries to retire but can't quite get himself to stay retired and ultimately has to be dragged out of the area just like everyone else.

Michael Jordan lived that story. So did Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, and a zillion other boxing greats. Why the hell is Roy Jones still fighting?

What's interesting about Favre is that he's wanted to retire at the "right time" for years but just can't pull the trigger on getting out of the game for good. Certainly, I can understand Favre's reluctance to go. Favre seems to really like football and he's plays the game at an extremely high level.

There has to be something satisfying about that.

Favre also gets paid millions of dollars in salary and big bundles of endorsement money beyond that. Moreover, millions of fans and thousands of sports writers idolize him so much that I wonder if he's ever actually paid for a meal.

Sure, the NFL is a super-tough league and the mental and physical grind and the injuries wear people down.

But Favre seems to have been living a pretty decent life as a pro athlete despite all of that.

So why the big deal about retiring at the right time or "going out on top" that seems to be at he root of the problem?

I think it's sportswriters.

For some reason, journalists of all kinds yearn for certain kinds of special personalities or events. For political journalists, the ideal is the guy (and I emphasize guy) who has several seemingly incompatible qualities. He is principled and irreverent, hard driving and not obvious about his ambition, and totally available to the media without appearing to pander. The reason the media likes John McCain so much is that he comes close achieving that ideal.

The "right retirement" seems to be the holy grail of sportswriters.

Here's Mark Kriegel of FoxSports swooning about Brett Favres retirement announcement last March.

Brett Favre's tearful farewell should have been regarded as an instructional video for American icons wanting to say goodbye.

Under the most trying of circumstances, he again demonstrated his virtues, plain-spoken-ness and grace under pressure being two of them. Even the weeping seemed raw and authentic, and in a world of canned sentiments, ennobling.

If Favre's struggle was evident, then so was his hard-won realization. He wouldn't con himself or those who believed in him. "Will I find something to do that's equal to throwing a touchdown pass at Lambeau Field?" he asked. "I doubt it."

Give me a break. Kriegel writes like he'd been waiting for years, maybe decades, to witness just the right kind of icon retirement. It's actually kind of sickening as if the intense longing of Kriegel and other sportswriters for the perfect icon retirement was one of the things pushing Favre to retire the way he did. But Favre isn't the sports version of a character from a romance novel. Given the fact that he had a very good year last year, the chances of Favre un-retiring were always pretty high and he started regretting his decision almost immediately.

But now that Favre is unretiring, writers like Kriegel are sounding so betrayed that you'd think they were falling out of the love they had for Favre--a love that was pretty weird and misplaced in the first place. Here's Kriegel again.
But Favre's legacy is of great concern, not just for the Packers, but for football fans everywhere. People don't want their memories tampered with. I keep hearing talk about Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield at Shea or Joe Namath hobbling through his final season with the Rams . . . What diminishes Favre is the lingering suspicion of his own making. He hasn't been straight up. Did the tough guy shed crocodile tears? I don't think so, but I know this story deserves a more honorable ending. Instead, you are left to wonder: Did Brett Favre con his fans — or himself?

It seems more likely to me that Favre himself was conned into an overly early retirement that he changed his mind about almost immediately but didn't want to go back on because he knew he had achieved such a big "icon moment." In other words, the problem wasn't the man so much as the twisted ideal of the "icon moment."

Maybe sportswriters should start looking for another grail.

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