Commentary

Brett Favre's legacy? Too early to tell

Updated: January 5, 2011, 4:14 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

In January 1962, when he was eligible for the Hall of Fame, Jackie Robinson -- perhaps the most significant player in baseball history and certainly, along with Marvin Miller, Babe Ruth, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Branch Rickey, one of the five most important people to have impacted the modern game -- received first-ballot induction, but with only 77.5 percent of the vote.

He had been retired five years and would live for nearly 11 more, but Robinson never worked in baseball again. He was never offered a job, not even by the Dodgers, to coach, manage or work in the front office of any team. He left baseball in a bitter dispute with his former teammate Roy Campanella and in a cold war with Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, and many in the sport, tired of his impatience with the speed of change in baseball and America, were glad to see him go. Although he was acknowledged as the man who brought integration to baseball, it would be years after his death before he would transition triumphantly into the unassailable national icon he is today.

[+] EnlargeBill Russell
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesBill Russell received the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award in 2006.

When Miller retired as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, hate was not too extreme a word to describe how baseball executives and millions of fans viewed him. The man who sought freedom and higher wages for players ironically was routinely called a communist. By winning free agency for the players, Miller had destroyed the game, or so went the conventional thinking. Three of the most famous opponents of free agency could have benefited most from it, but Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron could not envision the sport without complete ownership control of player movement.

Nearly 30 years later, with everyone in baseball making more money than ever and the freedom to play for another team obvious, the thinking about Miller has shifted very much to the mainstream: Why is someone so significant, who has done so much for baseball, still not in the Hall of Fame?

Neither Miller nor Robinson altered his historical stature in retirement, but time shifted society's views. In the 24/7, cable-satellite-Internet sphere, the wisdom of time is the very thing we have the least patience for, especially in the vaunted age of Twitter. We want to know how the dinner tastes before it is cooked, and we seem to think that the cooks -- not the patrons -- are the ones with the answers.

Sunday, Brett Favre watched his final game -- a 20-13 Minnesota Vikings loss to the Detroit Lions -- from the sideline. His streak already ended, Favre looked the way a 41-year-old football player is supposed to look: old, brittle, haggard. There was no playful cat-and-mouse from Favre about whether the old gunslinger would return next season, no clandestine trips to Mississippi planned by teammates, no one clamoring for him to suit up next season. He was, fittingly and completely, finished as a football player.

Yet during the week before his final game -- indeed, as early as the first week of August, when a Visanthe Shiancoe text message erroneously said that Favre had retired -- the most manufactured storyline of the year became that of Favre's legacy.

In a nonstop culture consistently unwilling to allow time for perspective, legacy is easily the most overused, misappropriated word in sports. It is used comically by players talking about themselves ("I'm just trying to secure my legacy") and prematurely by fans, broadcasters and pundits trying to answer the unanswerable: what future generations will remember and how future events will change how a person is perceived.

These contrivances, premature and unnecessary, permeate and diminish the discussion. Earlier in the summer, LeBron James, all of 25 years old at the time, changed teams. He did so under such stormy circumstances that the airwaves were filled with debate over James' legacy. James' career most likely is less than half over. It could take two more decades -- the remainder of his career plus a decade or of reflection and yes, time, to see which players replace him -- for basketball historians and fans to have even a partial idea of his place in the game or his impact on it. See you in 2031.

Yes, technology speeds information. News goes viral in minutes. Commentary is instant. But even in the 24/7 news culture, a year is still 365 days, and legacies evolve over years, not days. In the grandest sense of the word (a person or event that changed the course of history), only a tiny percentage of A-list professional athletes even have a legacy. Robinson, Ruth, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali have legacies. Most athletes play and, after they retire, drop out of the larger cultural conversation.

More easily discussable than Favre's legacy -- provided the conversation remains liberally open-ended -- is how he has left the game. Like all players, he will be remembered as the public saw him. (And with a career as long as his, that's a constantly sliding scale, viewed differently by the multiple generations who watched him compete.) Favre did not change the way football is played or the way the business is run. Neither did Joe Montana or Terry Bradshaw. When he was cranking, he was the most dangerous, most entertaining quarterback of his time, maybe in history.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesBrett Favre didn't return to the field after being sacked by the Bears on Dec. 20.

His numbers were prolific thanks to talent and durability in the most liberal passing era of all time. The most important and faulty aspect of the in-career or just-retired legacy nonsense is that the person being evaluated has no control over the bulk of life. Without a successful civil rights movement, Robinson's importance -- and the importance of sport as a vehicle for societal change -- would have been severely diminished. No athlete or person can foresee the future context by which he or she will be judged, which is why Halls of Fame have waiting periods to provide proper reflection.

Our understanding of Favre's impact as a player is based on the memories he produced, and there are plenty. If you saw Favre in the 1990s, when he was at his best, you more likely may forgive the recent Favre. If you are a child of the Peyton Manning/Tom Brady era, when efficiency wins over the electricity of spectacular touchdowns and deflating interceptions, you may wonder what the hype of recent returns was all about.

His sex scandals -- two massage therapists sued Favre and the New York Jets on Monday for sexual harassment to add to the Jenn Sterger saga -- have blemished his final days in the league and challenged his reputation as a family man. He seems tainted. Add to that his endless retirements and returns, which often placed him above the needs of his team and teammates, erasing his "one of the guys" persona.

Even so, his sponsors at the denim jeans company Wrangler continue to use Favre to pitch the demographic that likes to identify itself as real men playing ball in the mud. Time, not today's punditry, will decide how Favre and athletes are perceived after they finish playing, Twitter feeds notwithstanding.

The problem is not that the question of Favre's legacy cannot be answered today, but that the unrealistic expectation exists that it could.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.

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