Hanging It Up

News of the retirement of Andrew Luck, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and only 29 years of age, shocked the sports world. As recounted in Yahoo News:

After a lengthy battle with injuries in recent years, Andrew Luck is officially calling it a career.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback announced that he is retiring from the NFL after just six seasons on Saturday night.

“This is not an easy decision,” Luck said after the Colts’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears. “Honestly it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.

“For the last four years or, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab. And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting — both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.”

“I’m in pain. I’m still in pain,” Luck said. “I’ve been in this [pain] cycle … and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football.”

The 29-year-old was on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium for their preseason game against Chicago and remained there even after news of his retirement broke. Colts fans picked up the news during the game, too, and then booed Luck as he walked off the field following their 27-17 loss.

In and of itself, the news of a professional athlete retiring is noteworthy — especially an athlete as talented as Andrew Luck. But what makes this story particularly disturbing is the crowd reaction.

For some reason the brain trust at the Colts organization decided to announce the quarterback’s retirement during a pre-season football game. The announcement might have been made on Friday a press conference with no crowd around to express their disappointment and disapproval of the man’s decision. But they chose instead to announce it during the game. One wonders why.

The crowd at the game booed mightily — and that’s the disturbing part of this story. Some took off their Luck jerseys and threw therm to the ground. I am reminded of the day many years ago when Johnny Unitas was still playing for the Baltimore Colts and, after many years of playing a brutal game he was struggling. The crowd reaction was to boo him mightily. This was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who had made the Baltimore Colts one of the best, if not the best, team in professional football at the time. What’s with those people?

And that is the question: what is wrong with people that they would boo a man who has displayed such remarkable athletic ability for so many years. Andrew Luck, as the story recounts, has been dealing with pain for years. Many professional football players cannot get out of bed when they are in their forties. Pain is a fact of their lives. And, for some, it is relentless. Apparently Andrew Luck doesn’t want to be among those men.In my mind this is admirable, it shows signs of prudence. But the fans see only the blaze of glory on Sunday fizzling out and know that now they cannot hope to be able to strut with pride when their team wins the big prize. Seriously folks, it’s only a game and these are people who feel pain and hurt when booed.

In a word, the fans care only about the fact that the odds of the Colts winning the Super Bowl this year dropped from 15-1 to 30-1 after the announcement of Luck’s retirement. Their hopes are dashed. The man is that good. But, in addition to being a man in pain, he is a player who was smart enough to know when to hang it up. A great many athletes play on long after they have passed their prime. I suspect they don’t know what else to do. But then there’s the dopamine that is released when they make a great play and the fans go wild. That keeps many a star athlete going — men such as Johnny Unitas. The game can be addictive.

I applaud Andrew Luck for knowing when to call it quits. The fact that he is walking away from an estimated half-billion dollars in retiring at this point suggests that this is a man of courage and even wisdom. And the fact that the fans booed this man is deplorable.

Great Quarterbacks and Such

In a recent interview with Andrew Luck, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, the man modestly brushed aside the question of whether he is likely to be the “next great quarterback.” He said that he really doesn’t listen to those sorts of comments; he looks to his parents and close friends, his coaches and teammates for evaluations of his abilities as a player. It was nicely done and the man does seem to be genuinely self-effacing, determined to give credit to his teammates rather than to take it all for himself. It was a refreshing breath of fresh air in the stench coming from the NFL these days.

But the issue raises an interesting philosophical question: how does one determine greatness in sports, specifically in football? The answer usually circles around some sort of calculation — how many games the man has won, his completion percentage, the number of Super Bowls he has won, and the like. The criteria of greatness shift and change like the smoke from a campfire, which can at times get as hot as the discussions themselves. But they always seem to involve numbers. In America we have a penchant for quantifying things. And with everyone and his Aunt Tilly carrying portable computers around, everything seems to be reduced to numbers and computed quickly so comparisons can be made. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the number of times a man brushes his teeth become a factor in determining if that man is a great quarterback before long. We love numbers.

But when it comes to greatness in literature and art, we blanch. There really aren’t any numbers we can plug into our computers. It doesn’t matter how many compositions a composer has written  or the number of paintings an artist has completed, how long the performances are or how large the canvasses. What matters is quality and this is a concept we cannot manage to deal with. So we dismiss it with a wave of the hand and call it “subjective.” It’s a “matter of opinion.” But, as I have noted in previous posts, there would appear to be legitimate criteria of greatness in art and literature, and the dismissal seems intellectually lazy and just a bit sloppy. Furthermore, it closes discussion just when it ought to get interesting.

Great literature, for example, is well written, full of vivid descriptions, interesting characters, gripping situations, intriguing plots and, above all else, it is thought-provoking. It grabs and holds our attention. Moreover, it invites revisiting. And that’s the key. Great literature, like great art, rewards innumerable visits, because we always seem to find something new every time we visit. With art and literature that is created for quick perusal and mere profit the visits are usually short and sweet. Popular music, for example, remains popular for a brief time and then is replaced with something else. There’s not enough for the mind to get hold of, as one critic has said: it doesn’t engage our imagination. With great music, there is so much going on that one needs to listen closely, recall what has already occurred in the music and try to anticipate what might happen next. Popular music does not invite repeated visits or close listening, just as popular art tends to tug at the heart strings, but leaves the intellect and imagination untouched. There is more to great art and great literature than there is to popular art and literature, in a word, though there may be perfectly good reasons to enjoy and even take delight in the not-so-great in art and literature. As they say, there is no disputing taste.  But greatness, while it cannot be quantified, can most assuredly be felt and experienced at many levels — so many that one visit is never sufficient.

Someone once said he re-read Don Quixote once a year and has done so for years. That’s a bit extreme, but it makes sense. Cervantes has put so much in his novel that it is like finding buried treasure every time the novel is read. Or, perhaps, it is like a bottomless cup of coffee except that, unlike coffee, the taste is fresh and delightful every time one takes a sip. The notion that greatness in art and literature is a matter of opinion, simply, is not worth taking seriously. We may not be able to quantify it as we do with quarterbacks and infielders, but we can experience it directly and discuss it intelligently.