Monday, September 13, 2010

Brett Favre: A matter of definition

After watching “The Wrestler” last night, it occurred to me that the battle between what's best for you and what defines you as a person is something which most athletes fight against throughout their careers. In the movie this battle is unsubtly portrayed as Randy “The Ram” Robinson is forced to reconsider his future due to health problems – the drama that nearly won “The Wrestler” several Oscars comes as he tries to reintegrate into a society that replaces peer and fan accolades with normal human relationships.

I can't help but think this is partly what haunts Brett Favre. Once you could know with absolute certainty that he'd start 16+ games in the green and gold, but over the past few years he's been traded to New York (seriously, can you think of a larger paradigm shift than moving from Green Bay to New York City? I can't), retired, unretired, signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, flirted with retirement, held out and finally come back to the Vikings apparently re-energised and ready for a twentieth NFL season.

His consecutive streak of starts remains unbroken after Thursday's loss at New Orleans, but Favre continues to ride the Pro Football bus. The most decorated QB of the past two decades, Favre is perhaps one of the most complex men in the league no matter how simple and corn-fed he and his agent have made him out to be. His life took a new turn in 2010 as he became a grandfather, the only one in the pro football today.

There can only be two reasons for his continued NFL existence – he still loves the game as much as ever, or that he's scared of the future. Sure the money is nice, but for a man who's made more money than Gordon Gekko – to continue the movie theme – surely it can't be the determining factor. And nothing in sports is as cut and dried as it seems, especially with Brett. The guess here is that his decision to go around again stems from both Column A and Column B. There can be no question that he loves the game, but I'd bet my last dollar that Favre's defined himself in his own brain, his own ego, as a quarterback. He's done this since high school football. It's fair to surmise he has minimal idea what his life will involve once he finally hangs up the helmet for good.

And to be fair, this doesn't just happen with pro athletes although they do form the most striking example of post-career blues. I once knew a therapist in Melbourne – call him Lal – who'd worked in the same area for nearly seventy years. He tried to retire and hand over control of his practice five separate times to his successors, moved down to his beach house and promptly returned in less than two months to demand reinstatement at the head of the clinic. At last count, he was 93 and had finally retired for the sixth time. It turned out he got bored easily. Can you imagine how bored one must get after nearly thirty years of adrenaline highs?

In sport though, the contrast can be even more stark. Anyone who retires from their local sports club can depart appreciated, but the level of adulation that John Public receives after fifteen years sterling service at Dumbarton FC could only be the most poor imitation of what pro athletes go through. When you get to the Pros, the volume is turned up to eleven: there's more money, there's more and prettier women, and the lifestyle involves greater excesses. The comedown off the NFL high – especially one that's lasted twenty years and four different cities – is something to be feared.

This problem of definition tends only to raise it's head later in an athlete's career. But should it occur earlier, these issues with self-definition can haunt an athlete's legacy forever. One of the more well-rounded athletes of recent times was basketball's David Robinson. Robinson retired in 2003 after winning his second NBA Championship with the San Antonio Spurs and has never looked back. That he had foundations and several business interests from an early age perhaps detracted from his NBA career – the main criticism of him while in the NBA was that basketball wasn't a matter of life and death to him – but it did make for an easier transition into retirement and normal life. To paraphrase, the road to retirement is paved with good intentions. Robinson will forever be labelled as never reaching his potential because the game just didn't mean enough to him. Several coaches have said that he was amongst the most talented players ever, but failed to live up to his potential. But should we as fans look down on him for those same reasons or celebrate a man who realised more and earlier than the rest of us that sport is an outlet, a means to an end?

With Brett Favre, it isn't the Liberatore Conundrum ( all over again, not even close. Favre is an offensive player whose skill is delivering the ball rather than stopping an opponent. But I can't help but feel sad looking at a player and realising he knows everything there is to know about one sport but he's yet to discover that there's more to life. What becomes even more tragic is when onfield performance begins to suffer and the last limping seasons become defining memories. This isn't a major concern yet given the strength of his offensive line and his characteristic poise. To that end, Favre is coming off one of his best ever statistical seasons. But even after such a dominant season to find him having second thoughts about continuing makes me think his heart really isn't in it but he knows little else.

Does this reluctance to walk into the sunset show up as a black mark on his career? I don't think so. Firstly, his performance hasn't slipped that much and it's unlikely to slip much more (unless his offensive line stinks) because he plays predominantly from the pocket. Favre's singular strength has always been the combination of accuracy and head smarts and this means he could even play for another year or two yet. But when you think about a generation-defining player, usually the lasting memories you have tend to be those of their final moments. Michael Jordan, author of several of the greatest moments in basketball history: “The Shot”, “The Pass”, “The change-hands”, “The Shrug” finds these all superseded by one defining memory: of him at the foul line with arm extended. “The Other Shot” against Bryon Russell and the Utah Jazz has become Michael Jordan's piece de resistance, the final morsel to be savoured before retiring, not his early high-flying days or his nasty Washington Wizards coda. More than anything else though, Michael Jordan's had a curious off-field persona ever since his days with Chicago and all of this is masked by the happy, vibrant memories he gave us while playing for the Bulls.

Perhaps this is closer to the truth as to why Favre sat on the fence so long before coming back. One of his last acts in an outstanding potentially-final season was to throw the ball away under pressure in last year's NFC Championship game against the Saints. Perhaps, like MJ, he understands his own legacy and feels that his messy exits from Green Bay and the Jets could mean his off-field persona is forever marked somewhere between indecisive and spoiled. Perhaps he feels he needs a happy ending before finally walking into the sunset.


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