Professional athletes are mayflies. The mayfly rises magnificently into the air on translucent wings, only to die within 24 hours. According to the NFL Players’ Association, the league average playing career lasts 3.3 years. That’s not long considering the many years of grueling daily training, various physical injuries, and social sacrifices athletes endure to play those three years. Compared to the NBA (4.5 to 6.5 years), the NHL (5 years), and MLB (5.6 years), the NFL has the shortest career lifespan. Worse, 78% of those NFL players go broke within three years of retirement.
Then there’s Tom Brady. Brady, considered by many to be the greatest quarterback of all time, is no mayfly. On Sunday, he will make his bid to win his seventh Super Bowl. At 43, he is the oldest active NFL player and, after playing 21 seasons, he is closing in on George Blanda’s 26-season record.
I was 42 when I retired from the Lakers. After 20 seasons, I had a lot of NBA records and very little hair. Some of those records have since been broken, some remain to be broken at a time to be decided. I did learn some lessons about being a middle-aged athlete in a league where the average age is 26, which is also the age of the average NFL player. Some of those lessons were about playing, some were about being a player – two very different things.
Playing on a professional level against well-trained athletes 20 years younger is a challenge. The court seems much longer, the legs seems heavier, the hoop seems smaller. That’s when you come face-to-face with what philosophers call the mind-body problem: the relationship between the consciousness of the mind and the stubborn bag of meat that is your body.
As a young athlete, the mind and body seem inexorably intertwined, best friends frolicking in mutual stimulation and reward. In other words, the mind tells the body what to do, the body obeys and both enjoy the results. But aging for an athlete is a betrayal. The body doesn’t respond with the same quickness, the same intensity, the same accuracy. Your best friend has become a complaining companion, kvetching about cold drafts, back pain and sore knees. When you’re young, your only opponent is the other team. When you’re older, you have two opponents: the other team and your reluctant body.
That’s when you make a truce with your body. In order to keep playing at a elite level, you promise to treat it better, eat healthier, stretch more, find the balance in your mind that soothes the body. I did that through yoga and martial arts. Both gave me more control over my body and helped me reduce the number of injuries I suffered. Both helped me be mindful of what I could and couldn’t do, yet let me push myself to perform at my peak levels. For Brady, it’s smoothies, massages, resistance bands, online brain exercises and a strict dietary regimen – with the occasional pizza.
The aging athlete hears a nagging thrum on continuous loop inside the brain: “Do I still have it? Do I even belong in this game? Don’t embarrass yourself.” In a very visceral way, it is like facing death. Not the cessation of bodily functions, but rather the cessation of one’s identity. How you see yourself. How others see you. Your value as a human being. There is a vast difference between being an active player earning fresh accolades and being a retired player resting on past accomplishments. As those accomplishments grow smaller in the rearview mirror, you feel more like a fraud still milking them so many years later.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at a ceremony before his last game for the Los Angeles Lakers, in 1989. Photograph: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
This is why after I retired from the NBA, rather than spend my life as just a former athlete, I decided to redefine my identity through my achievements as a social activist and my new career as a writer. In choosing a new career, I needed the same challenge I had as an athlete, except this time the body would rest and the mind would take the lead. I knew that at first, my writing would be a curiosity. Some would dismiss it as capitalizing on my fame, like Steven Seagal’s album Songs from the Crystal Cave. I have written articles about politics and popular culture, books about African American history, novels, graphic novels, movies, and TV scripts. Fortunately, the novelty that I could string words together cohesively passed and my work as a writer – which I have been doing for longer than I played in the NBA – has been taken seriously.
I had already been an activist throughout my college and professional basketball careers, but now I had more time to give to fighting for social equity for all marginalized people. I did this through my writing, through my Skyhook Foundation and through showing up wherever I was needed to speak out. It is at this late stage of your career where you decide what kind of player you want to be, even after you retire. Aside from your excellence in your sport, what do you stand for, what values do you represent?
It’s still not certain what kind of player Tom Brady will be. In 2014, he sidestepped the subject of players taking stands on social issues: “I try to stay in my lane. All of those things, none of it’s really my business or my control. I’ve just been focusing on the games and what I can do better.” When asked about the possibility of being a spokesman on behalf of the players, he shook it off. “I certainly have a lot of personal feelings toward all those things, but it’s just, there’s nothing I can do … I really don’t want to be involved in any of those things … I just don’t want my name mentioned in any of those situations that are happening.”
However, in September of 2020, following the summer of national Black Lives Matter protests, he offered more direct support of the activists’ cause: “Everyone should deserve the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. Being in the locker room for 20 years and being around guys with every different race, religion, skin color, background and different states. Everyone [brings] something different to the table and you embrace those things. They expand you in ways that you couldn’t have been expanded if you weren’t exposed all those different things.” That suggests to me that he’s becoming a player who wants to use his voice to help achieve equity among Americans.
The great Spanish soccer player Xavi once said: “In football, the result is an impostor … There’s something greater than the result, more lasting – a legacy. ” Brady will be considered a great football player no matter what his politics. But when an athlete gets to be his age and is nearing the end of his career, maybe his legacy should be more than just being a great player but also being a great man.
It’s too early to tell whether Brady’s legacy will be just a bunch of impressive stats or something more lasting. Maybe the true measure of one’s legacy is how many people you inspire who have never seen you play.
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