When Joe DiMaggio retired from baseball, he didn’t make a big thing about it. He called a news conference, laid out the news, talked for an hour about this and that, and left. It was 1951. DiMaggio was the most famous athlete in America. You could argue the New York Yankees star was the most famous athlete in history. He’d get even more famous in a few years when he married Marilyn Monroe.
But in DiMaggio’s mind, retiring from baseball meant, you know, retiring from baseball. Absenting himself. Going and not coming back.
He did side hustles as a pitchman and wandered back briefly to (badly) manage the A’s 20 years later, but for the most part DiMaggio left the game to the players. He was no longer a regular fixture on the U.S. cultural scene. Hence the Simon and Garfunkel lyric.
It seems so lovely and naive now – the hero’s arc completing its circle and being voluntarily closed.
Nobody leaves any more. They may quit, but they never leave. What they do is make small adjustments to their personal brand.
Tom Brady quit playing football this week, but despite what the headlines say, he hasn’t quit football. He’s just figured out a different way to play.
Super Bowl weeks aside, Brady has never been more visible than he is right now. He’s followed by the paparazzi; he’s dropping stories; he’s got his exes out there pumping him up in the tabloids. He’s doing videos and leaking the background to how the videos were made. There are teenage pop stars doing less social-media outreach than Brady is right now.
Truly grateful on this day. Thank you 🙏🏻❤️ pic.twitter.com/j2s2sezvSS— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) February 1, 2023
Whenever you see him now, hidden behind that blank smile and eerily smooth face, you can feel his terror. What’s he afraid of? Being forgotten. If you allow people to adjust to life without you, even for a moment, there may be no coming back from that. So Brady’s out there spreading a message – ‘I’m not leaving.’
Before quitting his first football gig, Brady had already signed up for his second one. He’ll be a commentator on Fox. His 10-year deal is worth a reported US$375-million. Brady isn’t in the NFL any more and he’s still one of the five highest-paid guys around it.
Ostensibly, Brady’s personal life cracked up this year because he couldn’t leave football and its attendant demands on his time. So what does he do? Leave football for another job in football that has the same schedule as football. It’s still football.
You look at some of Brady’s new panel colleagues and you see his future. After 20 years of being pummelled on the field, Terry Bradshaw looks like he has to be gurneyed onto the Fox set each weekend. He’s 74 and still the broadcast’s top draw.
Jimmy Johnson ‘retired’ from coaching 23 years ago. He’s 79.
Howie Long, a precocious 63, retired 30 years ago.
These guys all made enough in their careers to fund five or 15 or 500 lifetimes. But they can’t leave. Because sports stardom is no longer a function of statistics, or championships, or the impression you left when you were young and didn’t know any better.
The most cutting-edge metric is longevity. How long can you be famous? Not ‘oh yeah, I remember that guy’ sort of famous. But ‘Did you hear what Terry said yesterday?’ famous.
These days, anybody can be well known for playing sports for 10 years. Not actually, but it seems that way. You hear the same names enough times on the endless sports cycle and it feels like they’ve been around forever.
Think of the guys who play on your favourite team. When they’re all 20- or 30-something and on TV every day, they all seem to be enjoying the same good luck.
When DiMaggio left, he was imprinted on the American consciousness. Decades later, his name still meant more in the Yankees context than anyone currently on the team.
But then fame got spread around. The means to advertise it expanded, and its value diminished. Nowadays, if you’re really, really good, you might linger in people’s memories for a year or two after you go. If you’re normally good, maybe a month or so. If you’re a regular player, you get one day’s worth of retirement stories, and then it’s as though you were never there.
The majority don’t get any sort of memorial. They just disappear. Those names are the chum of the fame game. Close enough to grab hold of it, but unable to hang on for long. Most have to have their fingers pried off it.
Thus, the new measure of an athlete’s (or an actor’s, or an artist’s, or an influencer’s) worth is the aggregate amount of time he or she remains famous.
Many takes on Brady touch on his obsession with the game. Brady’s talked about it himself at length. But it isn’t the game that draws him. If it were, he’d be joining a friendly flag football league instead of Fox.
It’s the sports lifestyle he can’t leave behind – the regimentation; the shared language and rituals; the feeling of belonging to the planet’s most elite fraternal organization; the fame.
Because if he doesn’t like being famous, there is an easy way to solve that problem – stop going on television. Stop calling photographers when you leave your house. Fire your agent and your publicist. You’ll be unfamous in a hurry.
Now pros play a game that lasts long beyond their ability to throw or catch. They compete to see who can remain looking the youngest the longest, who can get the best TV gig on the choicest prime-time slot, who can come back to run their old team or win another championship as a coach. The goal isn’t success. It’s being successful enough to hang on until you get retired for a final time, from living.
This fame game is the sport that comes after sports. In terms of big leagues, this one is even harder to make.
According to reports, Fox only has so much room in the booth. To make space for Brady, current colour guy Greg Olsen may have to find something else to do.
Olsen is 37 years old. He had a hall-of-fame-calibre football career. Though he’s new to broadcasting, he’ll be calling next weekend’s Super Bowl.
A week ago, you’d have said Olsen was on top of the football world. Then Brady decided to take his football career in a new direction. He’s winning again, so someone has to lose.