There was an interesting article on MajorLeagueSoccerSoccer.com today about how Landon Donovan keeps dropping hints that he's going to "take a break" from the game after this season, and might retire completely.
Now, I don't particularly care what Landon Donovan in particular does - I'm not a Galaxy fan, and I don't follow or care about international soccer at all - but this brought up a wider question in my mind that I thought needed a little exploration.
Landon Donovan, as the MLSS piece points out, has been playing soccer non-stop since he was a child. He's 30 now, and in addition to constantly playing the game on two continents, he has been held up as the face of US Soccer (at both club and national level) for a long time. There have been other "Faces Of US Soccer" in the past, like Tony Meola, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas (and really, that is not a face that I want as the face of anything), and more recently Freddy Adu, who were supposed to be the poster boys for a new era of soccer dominance.
The difference between Landon Donovan and those guys, though, is twofold: Donovan is a world-class talent, and he plays in an age when soccer is more broadly popular in the US than it has arguably ever been. So there is, as the MLSS article points out, an astounding amount of pressure being heaped on the shoulders of Mr. Donovan from the US soccer community, and if he decided to walk away from all of it tomorrow at the age of 30, I for one wouldn't begrudge him that in the slightest.
That, however, brings up the question of "responsibility". Some fans seem to think that superstar players should, and in most cases must, play their chosen sport until they can play no more; they're amazingly well-compensated, they're treated like heroes, why would anyone want to walk away from that lifestyle in the prime of their career and life, and why on earth would you "waste the gift you've been given"? That, to me, is a horribly selfish way of looking at it. That shows me the fan is thinking only of him/herself - "I can't imagine being that genetically and athletically blessed, and if I was I sure as hell would play until I was 50 years old!" - and not of the realities of physical sports.
No matter how well compensated you are, it's hard being a professional athlete - the toll it takes on your body alone is ridiculous, and then you add in all the traveling on airplanes and buses (even if you're on a chartered flight or a private jet, it sucks being in the air for five hours crossing the US every week), and the extremely regimented lifestyle during the season, and being an athlete can be a grind.
When you add on the pressure that the media and the fans put on a guy who, when he became a famous/prominent athlete, was at an age when the rest of us were skipping out on lectures and drinking too much in college (read: not emotionally mature in the slightest), can we blame Landon for wanting out now, when he actuarially has probably five or six good playing years left in him?
I enjoy watching elite athletes do what they do, don't get me wrong. But I also understand that in a lot of ways, it's gotta suck (and at the very least, be tremendously hard work) to stay at that level and satisfy those outsized expectations for as long as Landon has. So, Landon, if you choose to walk away from the sport after the 2012 MLS playoffs, I wish you well and I will wholeheartedly defend your decision to do so. And if your Galaxy happen to face Seattle in the semifinals of the MLS Cup, I hope your last game (if this truly is your last year in the game) is a win.