Under The Bleachers: Athletes Walking Away Early

Over the winter, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced that he was retiring. He was 24-years-old and coming off an outstanding rookie campaign where he had 108 combined tackles and after the retirement of fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, Borland had a chance to shine on the defensive side of the ball in the Bay Area.

But he opted instead to walk away.

Wednesday afternoon, Canadian mixed martial artist Jordan Mein announced his retirement. Having amassed a 29-10 record that includes a 3-2 mark in the UFC, the Lethbridge, Alberta native acknowledged that the competitive fire that initially brought him to the sport and fuels his contemporaries in the gym every day and in the cage on fight night just isn’t there any longer, so he’s walking away to begin the next stage of his life.

Mein is 25-years-old, only a handful of months younger than lightweight Frankie Perez, who earned his first UFC victory on Sunday night in Saskatoon – and a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus – and then promptly announced that he was hanging up his four-ounce gloves.

For the longest time, the conversation around athletes and retirement centered around whether they were hanging on too long – if guys were clinging to the past and trying to cobble together one or two more years, sticking around one or two more seasons than maybe they should have, stepping into the cage one more time when all signs point to them being well passed their prime.

There was an element of concern to those conversations; a questioning of whether it was the right decision and what greater harm might come from taking another season of punishment or going through with one more fight.

Admittedly, the majority of mixed martial artists make a fraction of the money their counterparts in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball make, so the draw of sticking around as long as possible and continuing to take fights often become a financial decision, but for all athletes, the common threads is often the competition.

They’ve been playing these sports and pursuing these dreams for the more than half their lives and with the drive and focus it takes to reach the elite level in any sport – or most any walk of life for that matter – it’s very difficult to just turn that off and walk away. It can be like a drug for some and the uncertainty of what exists beyond the practice facility and the training center can sometimes be a scarier prospect than sticking around too long.

But lately, we’re seeing more and more athletes making the opposite choice and it should be commended.

Mein and Perez could continue fighting in the UFC for the next five years with relative ease, yet both have opted to step away for their own reasons. It’s unfathomable to some, but absolutely the right decision if its what they feel is best for them and their families. How anyone could judge them negatively for those choices is beyond me, though veteran UFC middleweight Michael Bisping took the opportunity to questions Perez’ manhood after he made the announcement Sunday night.

Borland left millions of dollars and probably some end-of-season accolades on the table, citing concerns about head trauma as his reason for walking away. While football fans will surely miss seeing him make plays on Sunday, you can’t knock a guy for putting his health first.

This trend has made me reconsider the way I look at athletes retiring and how we frame it. Most people would say that these three all retired early – that they walked away in their prime when they had a number of competitive years left – but more and more, I’m coming to look at it as them walking away at the right time. Not because they lack the fire and intensity to compete at the highest level or any of the nonsense Bisping suggested Perez was lacking late last weekend, but because it’s what they want to do.

They’re not retiring early; they’re just retiring, period.

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte

E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance journalist based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where he lives with his wife and dog. In addition to his work here, he writes about sports for Complex Canada and covers the UFC for various outlets. His mom also still tells him what to do on a regular basis, even though he’s nearly 40. He tweets from @spencerkyte.

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