Hanging On for Dear Life

By Jason Menard

Those of us who sit back and dwell on whether or not a player should hang up their skates, cleats, or shoes should take a moment and realize that we’d have to be pulled, kicking and screaming from the game we love.

As fans, we enjoy a love/hate relationship with our sporting icons. Many of us envy the fact that they’re getting paid to play a game we’d do for free, and then we turn around and have the audacity to want them to hang ‘em up before they’re ready. We refer to athletes as being selfish, when it’s really us who are only thinking of ourselves when it comes to where, when, and how our favourite athletes should play.

And, in the end, we forget that many athletes are only doing what we, ourselves, would do – find a way to get into one more game, on more team, for one more moment in the sun.

Sports fans and pundits alike are fond of deciding when an athlete’s finished, over-the-hill, or past his prime. We sit back in our easy chairs, passing judgment on the very same athletes that we cheered wholeheartedly for “when they were good.” We’ll look on with pity at poor Jerry Rice, desperately signing on with the Denver Broncos for a shot at a fourth or fifth receiver position, all the while lauding Barry Sanders for going out on top of their game.

Personally, I think we’re pretty darn hypocritical, because you and I both know that we’d be willing to sign as a water boy at minimum wage for a chance to stay close to the team if those were the only options left.

Yes, sports have become big business, but at their very heart they remain a game. The same game that we played on local rinks, fields, and courts – only on a much larger scale. And the pro athlete we look up to once had the same dreams – if not a tonne more talent – that we did back when we were kids and going to the pros wasn’t just a fantasy – it was a certainty.

If we made it to the bigs, we’d be holding on to our position for dear life. Milking every second of it for as long as we can. But we don’t offer our sporting icons the same opportunity. We look down upon their efforts, make them the butt of jokes, and then state that they’re tarnishing their reputations.

And some folks are offended by the idea of a player signing an essentially bogus contract just to retire in their old jersey, after a few years in free agent purgatory, exorcising their athletic wanderlust.

In the end, time softens all the hard edges. Joe Montana is no lesser a quarterback for hanging on with the Chiefs, just as, for many of us, Wayne Gretzky will always be an Oiler. The fact that he had a cup of coffee with the St. Louis Blues is just an afterthought. Mark Messier? His legacy will be that of a Ranger or an Oiler – his sojourn with the Canucks relegated to a footnote.

As we look back on the sporting icons of our past, time has a chance to make the good things greater and the bad things out of focus. I grew up idolizing Guy Lafleur, but the fact that he played for the Nordiques and New York doesn’t change the fact that I’ll always see him in the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. And hoops fans will never be caught referring to that Wizard’s legend Michael Jordan. He will be forever a son of the Windy City.

So let the players sign their one-day contracts and retire with teams with which they’re synonymous. Where, in the end, is the harm in that? However, robbing anyone of the opportunity to play the game that they love, just one more time, if they have the interest and there’s a team that wants them – that’s just selfish on our part.

We build up our icons to untenable positions, either to watch them fall or tear them down ourselves. Their athletic superiority is unmatched by the airs of superiority that we put on in passing judgment. But this superiority just isn’t justified.

After all, we may take the high road from the comfort of our couches – but, when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t do anything different ourselves.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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