“Those of us in the grandstand seats want our athletes – the ones who are our age – to quit while they’re still on top. That way they won’t embarrass us. We then want our heroes to instantly disappear so that we can always remember them (and ourselves) as magnificent and forever green. For it is when our athletes start to go downhill that we are first forced to come to grips with the possibility of our own mortality.” —Frank Deford, Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter (2012)
The latest example is, of course, Peyton Manning (pictured). The NFL quarterback leaves with all kinds of records and a second Super Bowl trophy. By sticking around, he would have gained nothing, and risked everything important. Not just the legacy that Deford has in mind, or even Manning’s health—but his reputation.
It is possible, despite the lawsuit that Manning has filed, that we will never be able to know for sure, as Al Jazeera America claimed, whether he used performance-enhancing drugs a few years ago. Given the two decades since, it is also possible that we’ll never know if the quarterback sexually harassed a female trainer while he was attending the University of Tennessee.
Achievements on the field may well be products of strength, speed and skill. Purity? Perhaps less often than we hope.