I received an instant message the other day from a friend asking me, “So when’s the post about Mason coming?” Not exactly sure what he was talking about, I quickly headed to the Baltimore Sun’s website to see what the news about Ravens’ wide receiver Derrick Mason was. I quickly learned that Mason had decided to retire, but that was not what struck me. Instead, I was drawn to a line in the summary on the front page of the Sun’s website that pointed out Mason’s lack of a Super Bowl victory.
The summary on the front page of the site is supposed to include the most important information within the story, so clearly the writer or web editor felt that Mason’s lack of a championship is a very important part of his career. To Mason, I’m sure this is important; no doubt he would rather not have that mark on his resume. But how important is it to Mason’s legacy, or the legacy of any athlete, not to have won a championship? And are there other factors more important to an athlete’s legacy than championships?
Here’s a list of some of the top players to never have won a ring:
Barry Sanders, Dan Marino, John Stockton, Ken Griffey Jr., Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Gale Sayers, anyone on the Red Sox between 1918 and 2004, Jim Kelly, Patrick Ewing, anyone on the Cubs since 1908, Jim Rice and Ty Cobb.
That’s quite an impressive list. But are the legacies of any of these athletes tarnished because they never finished a season on top? In my opinion, it depends on the sport and the position of the player in order to make a judgment like that. I don’t think a blanket statement can be made about athlete’s legacies if they haven’t won a title.
For instance, I hold Patrick Ewing more accountable for having never won a championship than someone like Barry Sanders. Because of the nature of basketball, with less players on the court, individual players have a greater impact on the final outcome of the game. For Barry Sanders, he may have been a phenomenal player, but in the end, he has no impact on how well his defense plays. Thus, I can’t fault him entirely for never having won a championship.
But in the end, championships are the ultimate goal for players. Thus, it is at least worth mentioning when recapping a players’ career. Still, I don’t think it should be one of the first things mentioned about a players’ career. I don’t think it should have been on the front page of the Baltimore Sun. I don’t think it should be the first thing mentioned about Dan Marino. And I don’t think it should haunt the legacies of Stockton and Malone. Instead, it should be an unfortunate post-script on a player’s otherwise stellar list of accolades.
My bigger problem, which I discussed earlier today with my boy Weitzen, is when legacies are created from things that happen off the field. When personalities override performance. When headcases live on in the memories of sports fans, for better or worse, and the quiet players often fade, well, quietly, into oblivion. As Weitzen asked out, who will fans remember more in 20 years? Terrell Owens or Marvin Harrison? Randy Moss or Derrick Mason? Dennis Rodman or Robert Horry? Ron Artest or Ray Allen? The answer to all of those questions, in my opinion, is with the louder, more abrasive athlete.
It’s a sad reality, created in part by the media and in part by human nature’s desire for drama and interesting characters. It’s a lot more fun to root against an abrasive character than it is to acknowledge the guy who goes out, does his job and then goes home quietly at the end of the day. And the label an athlete creates for himself during his playing days generally stays with him into retirement, thus cementing his legacy in large part due to a personality trait, rather than physical ability or accomplishment.
But should we look deeper at an athlete’s career to determine his legacy, moving beyond shallow measurements of athlete achievement and personality? It would seem more fair that way, but remember that a lot of an athlete’s legacy is determined by those two things. The thoughts that come to the minds of most fans first when thinking about a retired athlete is generally is reflective of the player’s legacy.
So an athlete who wants to be immortalized in the minds of fans needs to do the following things: Be a great player, have personality but don’t get in trouble/be annoying/pesky in the media, AND win a championship.
Piece of cake.