By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, July 22, 2009 12:17 AM
Somebody once described retirement as "statutory senility." The boredom and mental drift that come with giving up work must be especially severe for athletes, whom we label "past it" by their early 40s, when most professionals are in their prime. After watching Tom Watson almost limp to a British Open title on a fake hip at 59, and Lance Armstrong rip across a road like he was tasered at 37, the evidence suggests athletes give up on themselves too early. Instead of listening to us, they ought take a lesson from Bette Davis: "I will not retire while I've still got my legs, and my makeup box," she said.
To some people, gray-stubbled Brett Favre looks ridiculous chasing a job with the Minnesota Vikings at 39. He's the sports version of an actress hanging around with too much powder and lipstick on her face. But if we learn nothing else from the events of this summer, it should be that we cheat ourselves out of meaningful performances when we sentence athletes to old age prematurely. One of these days, a golfer older than 50 will win a major championship, but it won't be because his audience encouraged him to keep playing.
When an athlete renounces his retirement, most of us groan. We complain they don't know when to get off the stage, and that they will tarnish our memories by gimping around as less than what they were. Somehow, we got the idea that their bodies and their legacies are our personal property. We want them to remain ideals, and don't want the sadness of watching them grow old. But that's our problem, not theirs.
Athletes such as Favre have it right. Studies show that retirement is no good for you. Even if you hate the job you go to every day, sudden abrupt inactivity is a bad idea. A working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled "The Effects of Retirement on Physical and Mental Health Outcomes" studied people in complete retirement over six years. It found that retirement led to a 5 to 6 percent increase in illness, a 6 to 9 percent decline in mental health, and a 5 to 16 percent increase in mobility difficulties.
The study also suggested that when retirement is involuntary, the symptoms -- which can range from expanding waistlines to depression to tobacco and alcohol use -- tend to be even worse. Forced retirement is exactly what athletes face: They are cut, released, or injured, and then there is the more subtle pressure of being continually told that they should go out on top, because it's a sign of neediness or weakness to hang around.
As Bill Bradley once said, "An athlete has two deaths." The loss of purpose, and of a reassuring regimen, can leave athletes feeling aimless to the point of desperation. "You wake up one day on the other side of the moon," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once told me, after retiring from the NBA at 42. Jabbar initially struggled so badly with retirement that he actually sold his house. He woke up one day and decided it was too depressingly dark for him.
The conventional wisdom is that athletes who go out on top are being true to their greatness. In fact, they are being untrue to themselves. Great champions are in the business of exhausting themselves. They aren't content as long as they feel there is something left, and to waste any fraction of their capacities feels, to them, like a sin against nature. Their every instinct tells them to use themselves up. As spectators, we have no right to contradict them. "The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender," Vince Lombardi once said.
Nor does it matter that winning might be beyond them. A Tour de France victory is probably not in the cards for my friend and co-author Lance Armstrong. On Monday, he had to come to terms with the fact that he hadn't been able to stay with the 26-year-old Alberto Contador on a steep ride to Verbier, and fell 1 minute 37 seconds behind. "Contador was strong. Very strong," he said.
Up to that point Armstrong had hope, but he simply lacked the acceleration of the younger man, despite his arduous spring training. It was now obvious that he would be racing just to hang on to second or third place, though he showed a flash of his brilliance Tuesday, closing a 35-second gap during a brutal climb.
"Any regrets?" I asked.
"Only a couple of regrets," he replied. "Breaking my collarbone. This sucked. Nearly bailed there. Glad I didn't though. And missing my kids. But at least they are old enough now to understand what I do. I guess I don't regret it because I'm doing it again next year.
"I feel good and I'm having fun," he added. "I'm healthy so I can do whatever I want. As long as my family blesses it, then I don't need anything else."
Nolan Ryan got it right when he played baseball until he was 46, and so did Satchel Paige, playing until he was 59. George Foreman got it right when he won the IBF and WBA titles by flooring Michael Moorer at the age of 45, and Dara Torres got it right when she won two silvers in Beijing at 40.
Martina Navratilova is still getting it right, playing competitive tennis past the age of 50. Saw her just the other day; she's got a better physique than most American teenagers. She made the Wimbledon final at 38, and won a Wimbledon doubles title at 49. Although she finally retired from the professional tennis tour in 2006, she is spending this summer playing World Team Tennis.
None of which she would have done had she listened to the drumbeat of advice telling her to give it up over the last three decades.
"I sure felt that push from the press," she says. "When I lost a match in my 20s, it was because I had a bad day or someone just played really well. When I lost a match in my 30s, it was invariably because I was too old. I mean, I won two more Wimbledon singles titles after they tried to retire me. For that matter there were a few articles when I was 25 saying I should probably call it quits, that my best days were behind me. It is peculiar."
Consider a great brain surgeon, or an architect, Navratilova says. If a young gun comes along who's better, no one would suggest they quit.
The next time an athlete has a question about whether to stay in the game, the next time Favre debates his arm strength, or Armstrong questions his legs, they should remember the words of another Armstrong, who stayed in his own profession until the day he died.
"Musicians don't retire," Louis Armstrong said. "They stop when there's no more music in them."