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Sixers-Bucks Preview: Larry Sanders and the Employee's Telos

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How do we talk about people who walk away, and what is that opportunity worth?

Hero of the Revolution Larry Sanders.
Hero of the Revolution Larry Sanders.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, after a lengthy and unexplained absence, Bucks center Larry Sanders returned to the team. He didn't dress for last night's game against the Suns, nor will he travel to Philadelphia with his team today. (Or rather, I imagine they've already made the flight by the time this post goes up, so he has not traveled with his team.)

Sanders has had a fascinating career already: From a mid-first round pick out of VCU to, for a brief time, the kind of athletic, dynamic defensive center we hope Nerlens Noel will be one day. Then, in the past 14 months, a litany of injuries, both on-court and off, a drug suspension, because while smoking pot bothers me not at all, it'll get you sent home for five games by the NBA. What does bother me is that the NBA's policy on policing drug use among its players makes MLB in the 1980s look like today's UCI--getting banged for drugs in the NBA is like falling into the pit in Wario Stadium in Mario Kart. Then Sanders took a sudden and unexplained absence from the Bucks, missing seven games entirely before showing up on the bench yesterday.

It's easy to draw a line from Sanders' contract extension, through his year of hell, to the current absence, but having no inside knowledge of his life, I'll say only that he's had what must be a frustrating year. If he is undergoing some unexplained psychological or personal issue, I only wish him the best of luck in putting it to rest, not only for his sake, but selfishly, for ours, because he's fun as hell to watch when he's on.

So really, instead of discussing Sanders specifically, I want to talk about the idea of walking away. What must it feel like to be close to the pinnacle of your profession, at a relatively young age, and to leave it all behind, without warning or explanation? I'm not talking about knowing when to fade away, sensing that the game's going to pass you by or that your body won't be able to keep up with it, and retiring in your early 30s. I'm talking about doing what Michael Jordan did, or what we thought Sanders was doing for a while. It has to either be the best feeling in the world or the worst.

There are two reasons I can think of for walking away in your prime: First is some kind of trauma, a personal issue that makes it difficult or impossible to carry on. A personal loss or a crisis of identity, such as Jordan coping with his father's death. The second reason is that you have everything you want, and you don't need the game anymore, so you can just give it the finger and walk away. I'll level with you--I absolutely idolize the men and women who have the wherewithal to do this.

There was a baseball player named Jeff King back when I was growing up--he played various infield positions for those Barry Bonds Pirates teams in the early 1990s before moving to Kansas City. He had a stupendous mustache and enough talent to be the first overall pick in the 1986 draft and went on to be a decent player for 10 years. And he hated baseball. On May 21, 1999, he reached 10 years of major league service time, enough for a full pension, and he retired the next day.

There's Landon Donovan, the greatest outfield player in American soccer history, who tried to carry his nation's expectations on his back while he was essentially still a child, and once he reached his full maturity as a player and a man, he refused to play except on his own terms, and committed the cardinal sin of American sports--he said so. He played where he was happy to play, and when he felt that his personal well-being was suffering for the sake of his professional life, he left the game behind until he was ready to return. That decision, his public realization that he was bigger than the team, likely cost him the captaincy of his national team and a spot on the 2014 World Cup roster. And when it became clear that he'd gotten everything he could out of a game that would no longer accept him, he retired at age 32.

A capitalist society exists to create wealth, and like it or not, that's what almost all of us, even professional athletes, do for a living--create wealth for others. Sometimes the manner in which we do this fits our interests or identity, what Marx would call our species-being. It does for most athletes, and for a select few others. But how many of you are doing what you need to survive, or have talked yourself into embracing a profession of which you only actually enjoy certain parts, because it's a necessary self-delusion? What would you give to be able to walk away when your work no longer suits you, to be able to put the time and energy you dedicate to producing wealth for faceless strangers who'd toss you on the street without a second thought the moment you stopped being useful?

I don't know about you, but I'd give up my very soul.

That's why we need to stop tolerating people who use demeaning language to talk about individuals who have it all and give it up. We're conditioned to sublimate our own interests and self-worth to the betterment of our superiors, and the more we accept it, the worse off we are as a society. Being a ball-stopper and not hustling back on defense is "not being a team player." Walking away from a job that doesn't satisfy you, or an employer who doesn't treat you with dignity is "reclaiming your self-respect."

Not everyone has the opportunity to do this, and our society wouldn't work if everyone went all Office Space one Monday afternoon. But it's a seductive fantasy, one most of us will never be able to carry out in real life.

Because sometimes, it takes more courage to give up than it does to persevere.