When we are young, we count down the days until we are 18. Once we get there, our eyes are averted to the hope of becoming 21. After that special (and most likely unforgettable) birthday, we spend the rest of our life wishing that the clock would stop ticking and every birthday was number 21. It is the same for professional athletes. Some say age is just a number, but for professional athletes, it is much more. The concept of age for athletes provides them or denies them job security, endorsement deals and, often times, salary raises.
There was a time when age 30 meant that an athlete was in the prime of his or her career. In today’s sports world, 30 seems more like 42. For example, Jeremiah Trotter was recently released by the Philadelphia Eagles, a team known for sticking with young players. Trotter was 30 years old and was selected to the NFL Pro Bowl in two of his three seasons in Philadelphia. Suddenly on Aug. 21, the Eagles released the face of their franchise, replacing him with 23-year-old Omar Gaither. Some argue that the move had to do with Trotter’s struggles with pass defense, but Gaither is no speed demon either. Trotter eventually signed a small one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This is only a small example of what is happening across the professional sports world. The only exception of this new age standard seems to be Major League Baseball. While football players die off in their thirties, some baseball players last well into their forties. Starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer and John Smoltz have won at least 10 games each during the current season, and all of them are over 40 years old. While the success of athletes in other sports depends on youthfulness, flexibility and athleticism, baseball stars usually possess power, smarts and preparation – three traits that age cannot significantly affect. Also, some baseball all stars are not what the general public would define as “athletes.” Former all star John Kruk accumulated a lifetime batting average of .300, yet he knew his success had little to do with his athletic ability, as he named a book he wrote in 1994, “I ain’t an athlete, lady.”
The average age of a team is directly related to success in baseball, unlike other sports.
The New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, who entered this week with the best records in the National and American Leagues, respectively, have average player ages of 31.6 and 30.7 years. They have the two oldest mean player ages in MLB. The two youngest teams, Pittsburgh (27.1 years) and Florida (26.6 years), are both near the cellars of their respective divisions.
Other professional athletes are not as lucky as baseball players in the later stages of their careers.
The National Football League offers a slight twist of irony in its age standards. In the NFL last season, the 12 leading rushers were all under the age of 30. On the contrary, six of the top 10 quarterbacks in terms of passing yards last season were over 30. On the whole, quality quarterbacks enjoy longer and healthier careers than other positional players alongside them.
The NBA also covets youth, yet there is an interesting method to the madness of the age system in the league. In a roster survey performed in 2005, the average age of an NBA player was 27. Many of the NBA’s high profile stars, however, are 30 years old or more, including Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Kevin Garnett. The quantity of weathered veterans in the NBA is waning as teams look to cheaper alternatives in the form of young, inexperienced, full-of-potential players. NBA teams look to build around their late-twenties to early-thirties stars and fill the empty spots around their stars with young players in hopes that they will one day be able to step into leadership roles.
The biological clock of an athlete never stops ticking. The professionals who perform well into their late thirties are the ones who best adapt to their changing body, lower metabolic rate and decreasing physical skills. Curt Schilling can no longer throw 97-mph fastballs past hitters, but he is still a highly effective pitcher due to the evolution of style that accompanied his aging. Donovan McNabb can no longer scramble around and out of the pocket like he did in his days at Syracuse, but he has found other parts of his game that he can rely on for success. For the normal folk, we truly are only as old as we feel. Professional athletes, however, are always as old as the text on their birth certificates. After a pro athlete hits the age of 30, it’s survival of the fittest.
Justin DiBiase is a junior civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]