There are times I wonder what the British make of sports coverage in America. New York tabloids have nothing on the rags you can pick up in London. But with the exception of the Wimbledon fortnight each summer, the English tend to focus their bold type on royalty. Who is Will dating? Has Harry been drinking? Did you see Fergie's dress?!
Here stateside, though, tabloid journalism -- well, at least a division of tabloid journalism -- revolves around professional athletes. The New York Daily News has treated Alex Rodriguez's romantic life with the same alarmed -- shocked! -- sensationalism Princess Diana endured right up to her sudden and horrific death. And those are savvy editors at the Daily News, for they recognize that New Yorkers thirst for Madonna-related rumors connected to their beloved Yankees far more than they do actual information on how those Yankees are playing these days.
Which brings me to the national American tabloid sports drama of the year: Brett Favre's retirement deliberation. You know the basics:
Having struggled in 2005 and 2006 (47 interceptions, 38 touchdown passes), Favre seemed to shave a decade off his aging process last fall, throwing 28 touchdown passes and only 15 picks in leading his Green Bay Packers back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
At age 38, Favre was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. A first-ballot Hall of Famer had he retired five years ago, Favre's legend grew exponentially with his rediscovered joy of playing a game that cripples many and exhausts most (both physically and mentally).
Late last winter, in the most tearful and public retirement ever seen near "the frozen tundra," Favre stepped down. His standard explanation was that his body could still play in the National Football League, but his mind had simply grown tired of the preparation needed to excel.
Amid speculation over an "unretirement" that began the moment his tears had been dabbed, Favre has now indicated a desire to play a 17th season. And with Green Bay ready to hand the play-calling duties to Aaron Rodgers, Favre and the Pack are at odds in what until a few weeks ago was the most harmonious partnership since Fred and Ginger. Tabloid headlines, here we come.
I have a cocktail of reactions to the Favre story, not so much directly related to Mr. Packer, as they are well-worn observations on the comic/tragic elements to a great athlete stepping down.
First of all, it will be sad for football fans, sadder for Packer fans, and saddest of all for Brett Favre if he ends up wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneer helmet, or a New York Jet helmet, even for a single season. This would be Namath in a Rams uniform, Unitas as a Charger. Favre in anything other than that iconic Packer helmet would be Joe Louis as a casino greeter in Vegas. Legends don't die, but they can diminish.
On the other hand, Favre is a commodity, and he knows this. For my money, I'd take a 38-year-old Favre over at least half of the 30 men who will start for NFL teams when the 2008 season opens. In Favre's mind, he'll never have the earning power he does as an NFL quarterback, so why not extend that market value as long as possible?
Finally, I say "in Favre's mind," because he is singular in that he built his legend in a place where "legend" is this side of hyperbole. For as long as the name Lombardi defines coaching in or around Wisconsin, so Favre will be the name and face of playing football the right way. If Favre can overcome this middle-age itch to suit up again, he'll never have to buy a meal in the Badger state. He can sell his name -- that commodity, remember -- to any business establishment from Sheboygan to LaCrosse, and simply count the checks in his mail.
Athletes play hard. They die hard. But nothing is harder for the greatest of players than to admit they can't quite play as they once did. (Take a look at Greg Maddux the next time he takes the mound for San Diego and you'll know what I mean.) Indecision wrapped up in lost youth are twin devils on a human being's shoulders. Perhaps this is why the tabloids -- and all their readers -- love the Favre story so much. Has he ever seemed more like one of us?