Sports and the Impossibility of Legacy

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Sports fans are not unfamiliar with the heartbreak of season-ending (and even career-ending) injuries. Most recently, NBA fans have seen Derrick Rose suffer another season-ending knee injury and Kobe Bryant be knocked out for 6 weeks with a knee injury of his own, despite having come back from last year’s season ending Achilles injury. Beyond the NBA, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was reported to have been concerned that people would question his toughness when he was forced to miss extended time with a serious collarbone injury. And New York Mets fans’ hearts sank at the news that star pitcher Matt Harvey would need to undergo Tommy John surgery. One of the few bright spots this past year has been the performance of Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis who continues to play at a high level following a third ACL surgery on the same knee.

These stories are familiar. Athletes performing at the highest level are always going to be susceptible to injury. Simply put: it’s part of the game. The average length of an MLB, NFL, or NBA career comes out to about 6 years (some suggest that an NFL player’s career lasts only 3.5 years on average). And, though each league has its fair share of superstars, most professional athletes remain largely anonymous to everyone but the diehard fan. That said, there is an elite group of athletes, marked by hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, multi-million dollar endorsement details, and yearly All-Star team selections. The best-of-the-best dream of being enshrined one day in the Hall of Fame of their respective sport. This elite class of athletes—think Peyton Manning or LeBron James—provides the backbone for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the rest sports media industry. And it is that industry which no only provides the context for an athlete’s fame, but which becomes the judge of his or her legacy. Athletes, then, are often driven by the ideal of greatness, which typically translates into the desire to win the largest number of championships while becoming the best at a given sport.

The result is that, throughout their careers, athletes strive to make a name for themselves and, after they have become “elite,” spend the rest of their careers (and subsequent lives) attempting to validate and maintain that status. It’s an impossible scenario. Just a few years ago, Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP in the NBA. Now, as a result of his two knee injuries, many predict that he will never be the same. His only hope is to prove them wrong by proving himself once again in the 2014 NBA season. Peyton Manning proved his naysayers wrong by coming back from a serious neck injury two years ago. And this year has had a season for the record books. Nevertheless, he has already acknowledged that it is only a matter of time before someone surpasses his numbers. Manning is aware that his legacy is bound to become the means of measuring future athletes’ legacies.

Some would point to Manning’s success as proof that this “legacy” scenario is not impossible, but one only has to look at the elite players of the past to see the cracks in the façade. A little more than a year ago, Wright Thompson had an illuminating interview with Michael Jordan entitled “Jordan Has Not Left the Building,” in which he talked to the star on the occasion of his 50th birthday. In the interview, Jordan, perhaps the best and most famous athlete of the modern era, comes off as a man who understands the fleeting and unsatisfactory nature of his own legacy. He is the only professional athlete to be a majority owner of a sports team and have his own merchandise empire. Teenagers who weren’t even alive during Jordan’s playing days know him as the greatest of all time. If any athlete can be said to “have it all,” it must be Michael Jordan. And yet, Jordan himself claims that he would trade all that he has to be young again—to be the elite player he was in his early days. He muses over the number 218, wishing that his then fiancé and now wife, Yvette Prieto, could have seen him when he was 218 pounds—a man in his prime.

Hearing from Jordan at fifty leads us to believe that the idea of a legacy—while romantic—may actually be a dangerous snare. Many chase after legacy and a chance to be remembered as great; most are crushed by the weight of trying to achieve it. What makes it so dangerous? The idea of legacy as sports media presents it to us is hollow. Even if one achieves legacy status—cementing their fame with outstanding numbers and records–they are then left to bask in past accomplishments and forced to confront a future that will never measure up to what they once had. To seek after a legacy leaves us chasing something that is ultimately unattainable. And, even if we do secure the “legacy” promised by our given field, we are ultimately left unsatisfied, forced to find our meaning and purpose in past accomplishments. Legacy leaves us striving toward a future that ultimately leaves us looking to the past.

What are the legacies we chase? Are they any less damning than those of athletes? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer to the second question is “no.” When you view your career as the source of your “legacy,” every mistake and failure is potentially catastrophic. When your legacy of choice is family, every spat with a spouse and every poor choice made by a child is disastrous. Where is the satisfaction in these legacies? They may satisfy us for a brief time, but sooner or later we will either fall short of our own ideals, or find ourselves crushed by the weight of the once-upon-a-time.

So then, what are we left to do? What are we to live for? What are we to do with legacy? In short, there is only one legacy that is ultimately fulfilled and fulfilling, but it is not our own legacy: it is the legacy accomplished for us by Christ in his death and resurrection. Christ’s work is one that is not based on our merits and accomplishments, which means that we cannot achieve it by future action, or lose it by future failure. It is a legacy of freedom. We are covered, past and future, which frees us up to live fully in the present. To accept Christ’s sacrifice frees us to bask in the legacy of being made righteous and holy, and sparks in us the passion to make Christ’s name known to others. The gospel is an invitation to give up on your own legacy and embrace the legacy already won for you in Christ.

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