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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

February 7, 2023: Football Figures: Jim Brown and Barry Sanders

[For this year’s annual Super Bowl series, I wanted to focus on some football figures & communities. Leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of our best current public scholarly SportsStudiers!]

On the parallel yet very distinct ways in which two of all-time greats left the game—and the American resonances of each.

When Jim Brown unexpectedly retired in the summer of 1966, after nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, he left football as the undisputed greatest running back in the league’s history, with numerous league records (including the career yardage mark) under his belt. Thirty-three years later, in the summer of 1999, Barry Sanders announcement his just as unexpected retirement; in his ten seasons with the Detroit Lions, Sanders had threatened numerous records of his own (he retired less than 1500 yards behind the all-time mark), and had struck many observers as the greatest running back since Brown. Yet despite these similarities, the circumstances of the players’ retirements were also hugely different: Brown retired due to conflicts with his burgeoning acting career, which he would pursue for the next few decades, remaining in the public eye throughout; Sanders refused to discuss the reasons for his retirement, and largely disappeared from the spotlight thereafter.

It’s impossible, and probably irresponsible, to speculate at length about the reasons why anyone makes the choices in his or her life, and I don’t pretend to have any special knowledge about either of these particular men or cases. But given the particular circumstances and details that we do know of each, I would say that Brown came to feel that he was bigger or more multi-faceted than the sport, and no longer wanted to be contained by its limits (such as the training camp restrictions from Browns owner Art Modell that specifically precipitated his retirement); and that Sanders, on the other hand, seems to have felt that the sport and its various attendant effects and issues were bigger or more draining than he was willing to deal with. I’m sure that there were multiple factors in each case, and I don’t mean to critique either man in any way; instead, I highlight these particular frames as they have interesting resonances with other talented American figures.

When it comes to Sanders, I can think of various famous Americans who seem to have suddenly decided (while still at their prime) that the demands of their respective worlds were intolerable and to have withdrawn from those worlds; perhaps the most extreme example would have to be J.D. Salinger. After the mega-success of The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Salinger withdrew entirely from public life and mostly from publishing; his last published story appeared in 1965, 45 years before his 2010 death. Brown, on the other hand, reminds me of those talented but fickle Americans who abandon established success in one field to pursue an entirely different one, perhaps to prove to the world or themselves that they can do so; the most common contemporary moves seem to be between the worlds of acting and music, but perhaps even more complicatedly and compellingly American are those celebrities who decide to pursue a career in politics and public service, particularly those who do so at the height of success. If The Rock had chosen to run for president, he’d have been simply one of the latest in that long and interesting American line.

Next football figure tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Football figures or communities you’d highlight?

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