In the most recent edition of ESPN the Magazine (September 30, 2013), Howard Bryant writes a short article on retirement in professional sports. Many bastions of their respective sports are quickly approaching the time to hang up their cleats or put down the racket: Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter in baseball, Venus Williams and Roger Federer in tennis—the list could go on. But so often when an athlete nears retirement, the public urges them to stay in the game while simultaneously suggesting they retire. As Bryant highlights in his article, many athletes hate this. They don’t want to quit playing—much of who they are is wrapped up in what they do, and that competitive drive imbued in almost every professional athlete cries out against the notion of retirement—of quitting. But they also don’t want to limp toward the end of their careers hobbled by the fact that their talent is rapidly changing (read: decreasing).
I think a lot of this tension comes from the American obsession with performance. The public wants an aging athlete to keep playing, but only if they can still perform. We’d rather not watch someone disgrace themselves. Barry Sanders’ retirement came as a shock in part because it seemed he was still at the top of his game: in 1998, the year he retired, he rushed for almost 1,500 yards. 1997? He ran for a career-high 2,053. He could still perform, and so we were annoyed when he announced his retirement. But as soon as a player cannot perform or it appears that way to us as fans, the public instantly begins to question their abilities and “The Retirement Question” becomes a conversation starter around the barbeque.
Rarely does a pro athlete age or retire well (looking at you Brett Favre). If one does, their “performance,” measured by fans through statistics and/or entertainment value, drops. Take Vince Carter for example. He no longer posterizes tall lanky white men or causes Kenny “The Jet” Smith to invite everyone in the arena to go home, and so I’m sure there’s pressure on him, because he’s not performing as he once did, to retire. However, if you read NBA coverage from the past few years, you’ll discover article after article praising Carter for his, wait for it, defense, court leadership, and overall basketball IQ (here’s just one example). He’s adapted how he plays the game to coincide with his age and environment, finding a team need and developing (or honing) the ability to fill it. He’s not retired (yet), but he has retired the player he once was and moved forward.
Outside tight NBA circles, though, no one has taken much notice of Air Canada’s late-career resurgence. It’s easy to understand why: he’s not performing anymore, no longer putting on a show. We have LeBron and Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant. We have new go-to’s for our posters and other performers to entertain us.
Our society’s obsession with performance shows up in the church too. We celebrate conversion numbers, increased attendance, heightened programming, etc. We love to be part of a church that performs well. Let me be clear: this is not inherently a bad thing. A church does not have to hang on to a thread for years to be faithful. And yet, if we focus too intently on advancement or performance, we skew our understanding of what the church is meant to be and whose work is being done. If we get wrapped up in tangible signs of progress, we could unwittingly march into our own retirement. Because our performance will falter.
This, of course, is an inexact (and actually kind of absurd) connection to make. The church doesn’t retire, and Christians don’t retire from being Christians. Also, Vince Carter features prominently in the comparison. But maybe we have to learn to “retire” or age well in this time when Christianity is not as pervasive or conspicuous as it once was. Maybe if our performance drops, it’s an opportunity to adapt and present a more authentic witness than waving around numbers or statistics. As Christians, we don’t need to feel the pressure to perform or prove our worth, to be LeBron or Blake Griffin or Kevin Durant. That will run us into the ground. We’ve only, like Vinsanity, to change our game and press on in faith.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.