Sunday, March 20, 2011

Should Athletes Go Out On Top?

Not Kelly Slater.  I don't think.

I recently came across this New York Times article about surfing legend Kelly Slater (who I know little about, but apparently he’s pretty good) and the seeming twilight of his illustrious career.  It appears that Mr. Slater has dominated the sport of surfing for the past two decades, winning every kind of tournament conceivable while performing effortlessly as is the modus operandi of most superstars.

But like so many retrospective sports articles, the writer veers off course and manages to make it about himself.  And, in this case, Matt Warshaw, trotted out the tired argument that superstar athletes should retire early because “going out on top” brings more value to their overall brand; completely forgetting that Kelly Slater is a living, breathing human being and not a stock sold on the NYSE.  But Warshaw’s opinion is hardly unique as we heard the same during the end of Jordan, Elway, and Montana’s (etc) careers.  But the question is:  Why are fans so insistent that their sports heroes “go out on top” to serve them instead of satisfying their own interests?  And it speaks to a larger issue:  A human’s inability to see outside oneself. 

Stop and think about yourself for a second:  Your constant thoughts.  Your tendencies.  Your fears.  Your emotions.  Your pains.  Your happiness.  It’s fucking exhausting being a human being.  We are such complex individuals we often have trouble figuring out ourselves even though we are with ourselves 24/7.  Hell, therapists have made an entire industry predicated on helping us come to even a slightly greater understanding of why we do what we do.  And though this may seem like a really simplistic thought, if we as a people realized that every single one of us (all 7 billion) go through the same exact process, perhaps we could view life from a wider prism.

To suggest that Kelly Slater retire early simply because his skills may start deteriorating is an incredibly selfish request as the only reason its requested is because the fan doesn’t want to see the demise of it’s hero.  In a world of fallibility, the idea of the perfect athlete is appealing to the casual fan because he represents something that defies the odds.  But though the fans may spend tons of time studying Slater’s technique and career success, he’s always seen as an ideal statistic instead of what he really is:  a human being.  The article never questions why Kelly Slater surfs and completely misses the point that it’s probably his favorite thing in the world.  Though I know little about Slater’s career (I actually do remember his arc on Baywatch back in the day, well done) I can only imagine he’s been surfing competitively since the sperm that formed him surfed past all the others to the egg.  Essentially, professional surfing, surfing competitions are all he knows.  And if he’s continuing to do it after all these years, my guess is that he truly enjoys it.  So why should he stop doing the thing he loves most?  Because FANS need a hero to distract themselves from their fault filled lives?  It’s absurd.  If I was him, and I liked surfing, I’d prefer to do it till the last possible second.  If he “goes out on top” now, it’s not like he’ll be able to pick it up again in a few years when his body will have officially betrayed him. 

We’re often very dismissive of each other; look no further than the homeless population that is routinely ignored by the general public.  People view them as if they were just generated moments ago and will fade into the distance once out of eyesight, completely forgetting that that homeless person had a childhood, a family, emotional distress, and pain just like the rest of us.  If a human could really see outside it’s own mind, we probably wouldn’t be so quick to fight, to criticize, and understand that we all should do our best to create a peaceful environment for one another. 

But, judging from history, I suppose that is too much to ask.  And, unfortunately, Kelly Slater won’t be the last athlete we ask to quit early in the name of our own bullshit.