Favre's back? Big deal; let him play
In the suffocating cacophony of the 24/7 sports culture, you'd think Brett Favre had been convicted of dogfighting or having sex with a woman not his wife on a restaurant table while his assistant kept a lookout. But really, all he's doing is what he's done his entire life: display an uncanny ability to attract attention whenever a football is involved.
Blame that culture of noise and the hundreds of hours of air time that must be filled for Tuesday's Favre-related histrionics. Yes, he is back. Again. Yes, he said he was not coming back. Twice. Yes, the New York Jets must feel a bit used right now. And no, today is not a great day to be Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels.
Big-money professional sport has become its own soap opera. The player rivalry or player-management fallout leads to the nationally broadcast sound bite, followed by the predictable "feud." Each resultant action becomes personal. We've seen this silly routine before, whether it was Shaq-Kobe, Clemens-Red Sox or T.O.-McNabb, to name just a few. Now we have Favre-Packers. The dramatic storyline overwhelms the story itself.
But let's have a little perspective, shall we?
With the possible exception of publicly broadcasting the games being played in his mind before reaching a final score, Favre is guilty of nothing that hasn't happened before in sports and will happen again and again. What he has done over the past two seasons is not the aberration in sports, but the norm. He possesses commodities -- his star power and his talent -- that still retain immense value in his field. That gives him leverage, which in turn creates interest from teams that know -- or at least believe -- they need his special abilities to win.
When it comes to retirements, Favre, in fact, is still an amateur compared to Roger Clemens, who seemed to retire annually during much of this decade. The most famous was in 2003, when in Game 4 of the World Series, the umpires stopped the game as Clemens appeared to be exiting the mound for a final time. The opposing team, the Florida Marlins, actually gave him a standing ovation during the game. Clemens not only came back the next year, but also pitched in the World Series again in 2005, and then came back again after much drama in 2006 and 2007.
Clemens has plenty of company. Boxers retire and rescind their retirements as standard operating procedure. Each time Bill Parcells quit, he said it would be for the final time; yet Parcells is back in the game again, and football is better for it.
And Favre might actually be doing the league a favor, for one of the main attractions of football is the anticipation of each confrontation between gladiator personalities. Vikings-Packers was already a game to be circled on the schedule. Now, with Favre, even more so.
Favre is exercising his leverage. What he's done is no different from the ongoing will-he-or-won't-he saga surrounding LeBron James and his coming opportunity to opt out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2007, Alex Rodriguez gripped an entire baseball season -- and for a time even overshadowed the postseason -- with the same power over the New York Yankees.
Leverage works both ways. In most cases, it is the team that dumps the player, discarded by the world. Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig and eventually Jerry Rice were all dropped by the 49ers. Rickey Henderson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame three weeks ago, but to this day, he has never formally announced his retirement from Major League Baseball.
Maybe Favre really is driven by playing against his former team, or maybe he is conflicted by the realities of his unique occupation, in which most of his peers are washed up before they're old enough to run for U.S. senator (30), never mind president (35).
Athletes should play for as long as they possibly can. They should do so without judgment from the public because of the individual circumstances of their industry. When he is 50, Favre can't decide he made a mistake and return to the field. Besides, there are only a handful of athletes -- Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Rocky Marciano -- in modern history who realized the fantasy of the western and just walked off into the sunset.
Most players suffer a more realistic fate, the fate of the gunslinger: They get knocked cold into retirement. Remember Joe Theismann writhing in pain that night against the Giants, or Joe Montana huddled on the frozen turf during a playoff game in Buffalo, feebly clutching the sides of his helmet. There was Michael Irvin being taken off on a stretcher in rabid, hostile Philadelphia, and Terrell Davis realizing after multiple knee injuries that he was no longer Terrell Davis.
Noise breeds anger, and the talk-radio characteristics of the Favre story are emblematic of that. If Favre has been ridiculed for this tango, so too has his dance partner, the Minnesota Vikings, who are doing nothing more than trying to win the Super Bowl. Former offensive lineman and Super Bowl winner Mark Schlereth was strident about that on ESPN on Tuesday.
"That book was integrity and ethics. That's what that book was, and we're going to throw it away. And we're going to sell our soul for what we think is a championship," Schlereth said on the air. "And let me tell you: You show me the last time that any NFL franchise was one player away from winning a championship. They just needed that one player. I'm gonna tell you something. That doesn't work. That may sound good in theory, but in practicum that doesn't work. And I guarantee it's not going to work in this situation."
But it does work sometimes when a Hall of Fame-level player becomes available. In 1994, for example, the San Francisco 49ers had lost consecutive NFC Championship Games to the Dallas Cowboys and then acquired their missing piece, Deion Sanders. After signing Sanders in mid-October, the 49ers steamrolled through the rest of the season, including a 49-26 demolition of the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.
Or the following season, when the Cowboys signed Sanders as a free agent and won the Super Bowl over Pittsburgh. Or the Broncos, who became a contending team once they drafted Davis and then won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1998 and 1999.
The Vikings are no different. If they believed they could not win with their current roster and didn't try to sign Favre, that would be unethical.
As for Rosenfels and Jackson, is there ever a good day to be either one of them? The Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan once told me that baseball is fun only if you're really, really good at it. If you're not, the game is constant anxiety -- anxiety to perform in actuality the way you envision your skills in your head, anxiety that the organization is trying to replace you. Even had Brett Favre remained retired, this is their lot as NFL players.
If management thought either was good enough to win a championship, Rosenfels and Jackson would have rendered the entire Favre affair moot in Minnesota.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "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@espn3.com.
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