Magazine article Insight on the News
Athletes Don't Fade Away ... They Just Call It Quits
Players retire at the top of the game because they can afford to. Money is affecting their behavior in other ways, too, as guaranteed contracts take the edge off performance.
Athletes stopped being rich about 10 years ago. Now they're Fortune 500-wealthy. So wealthy they can retire when they're still the best player in basketball. Or when they have just quarterbacked their team to a second straight Super Bowl victory. Or when they're among the National Hockey League leaders in assists.
This is the flip side of the affluence of modern U.S. sports. It enables Michael Jordan, John Elway and Wayne Gretzky to call it a career when no one -- outside of their immediate families -- wants them to.
Jordan was the National Basketball Association's Most Valuable Player last season. Elway started for the American Football Conference in the Pro Bowl. Gretzky led the Rangers in scoring. But they're all walking away because, among other reasons, they can afford to.
What are they worth, collectively? Three hundred million, four hundred million? Jordan already has inquired into coownership of the Charlotte Hornets. Elway sold his Denver car dealerships not long ago for $82 million. Gretzky could buy the Edmonton Oilers if he wanted. If you're looking for a common thread in the Jordan, Elway and Gretzky retirements, look no further than their bank accounts.
Of course, athletes in other eras have taken early retirement -- Jim Brown, for one. But in fact, Brown was in the same situation as Michael and Co.: He could afford to call it quits. He stood to make just as much money in Hollywood as he did with the Cleveland Browns. (And he didn't have to worry about getting clotheslined by Raquel Welch.) What makes this such a nineties thing? Numbers, sheer numbers. Jordan, Elway and Gretzky are only the first wave. There will be plenty of others.
This theory of affordability explains all kinds of unusual athletic behavior, not just premature retirements. To wit:
Q: Why does Rod Strickland put his pants on backward -- and then get picked up for drunk driving?
A: Because he can afford to. He has a guaranteed contract, and he knows he will get paid no matter how ridiculously or irresponsibly he acts.
Q: Why does Latrell Sprewell choke his coach? …