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Whatever the explanation, Namath, like Robertson and Allen, left his sport, and society, forever changed by his free-spirited behavior. With enough money in the bank to walk away from football whenever he pleased, Broadway Joe refused to participate in the wink-and-nod double life of athletes and sportswriters past and demonstrated that there was no inconsistency between recreational drug use and success, between rebellion and honesty, and between brash freestyling and victory on the playing field.
It's fashionable now to disparage the effects of the free labor market on professional sports. Steroids, $100 million salaries, bodyguards, and thuggish behavior make athletes seem more distant and monstrous than ever. The play, too, has changed; with such powerful financial incentives and a global talent pool, it's far easier for the best physical specimens to find the professional leagues and much harder for less athletic specialists to compete against them. Tellingly (and humorously), Namath, Allen, and Robertson all criticize the unpolished arrogance of the modern athlete, just as they were criticized before. It's easy to chalk up the bitterness to the usual back-in-my-day romanticism that attaches to every sport.
But there is arguably another nostalgia at play. When athletes suddenly had the financial freedom to become known for their nonsporting activities and beliefs--when the U.S. Olympic team raised black-power fists on the medal podium in 1968, when Ali rapped about the Vietcong to Howard Cosell, when people solicited Namath's opinion about� Nixon --there was a novelty to both the expression and the new television medium that transmitted it. As with anything new, the interest came in a noticeable burst, then subsided. We are no longer shocked or thrilled that an athlete has an opinion about the presidential election. But at the time, if the brutes on the playing field could suddenly have political or even sartorial relevance, why couldn't college students or factory workers or 12-year-old boys? To lament Joe Namath's fall from grace is to mourn the passing of a time when his transgressions made everything seem fresh and possible, not staid and played. We probably don't need professional athletes to break boundaries for us any more, but we should give a moment's gratitude to those who did.