Longevity in Sports Today

The longevity of professional athletes has been consistently gaining attention in today’s sports world as a topic of discussion and conjecture. From Tom Brady having just won his seventh Super Bowl at the age of 43, to Lebron James continuing to dominate in the NBA in his 18th season, to the Williams sisters still fighting in Grand Slam tournaments, many question how these athletes are still even playing. What does it take to have a career that exceeds the normal age limit to compete professionally? 

Tom Brady and Lebron James have not only maintained dominance, but have also surpassed previous achievements. Tom Brady was selected by the New England Patriots in 2000 as the 199th pick in the sixth round of the NFL draft. Little did everyone know how much of an impact he would make. Early this February, Brady, no longer wearing the Patriots uniform, won his seventh Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While this victory occurred in Super Bowl LV, his first Super Bowl victory with the Patriots was Super Bowl XXXVI, 19 years ago. In both his first and most recent Super Bowl victories, he was voted as the MVP. He has also won the NFL MVP award three times, his first and most recent having been earned 10 years apart. He is continuing to rack up trophies for his trophy case and is showing no signs of slowing down. His 40 touchdown passes this past season were the second-highest in his entire career. On The Howard Stern Show last year, when asked why he still plays, he responded, “You don’t tell a musician to stop singing at age 42. You don’t tell a great painter to stop painting at 42.” In order to maintain his exceptional record, Brady believes he needs to follow vigorous routines to take care of his body. Achieving greatness is not easy, but Brady shows that it can still be done playing into one’s 40s with hard work and discipline. 

Lebron James is 7 years younger than Brady, but at age 36, being considered for his fifth NBA MVP selection is certainly not a traditional path for professional basketball players. Like Tom Brady, Lebron James has demonstrated remarkable consistency, continuing to perfect his career portfolio. His first season was with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003-2004. Since then he has only suffered one major injury, in the 2018-2019 season, when he missed a total of 17 games. In fact, those 17 games he missed represent the longest consecutive number of games he has not played in his 18 seasons in the NBA. Lebron is a four-time NBA Champion and four-time NBA Finals MVP, having first won both of those awards in 2012, and winning both awards again this past year in 2020. In addition, he has 16 All-NBA selections and NBA All-Star appearances. Like Brady, Lebron puts in a considerable amount of effort to keep playing at his level past the conventional age limit. According to him, he spends seven figures each year taking care of his body, making sure he is as fit and as healthy as he can be. Not only is greatness difficult, but it’s expensive. Regardless of the cost, which Lebron can clearly afford, he shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. 

While the careers of Tom Brady and Lebron James have demonstrated that it is possible to be dominant even at the later stages of one’s career, Venus Williams, the older sister of the Williams sisters duo, has shown that success does not have to define a long-spanning career. Venus’s tennis career has spanned over 25 years, and during these past decades, she has been bombarded with constant injuries. However, despite being quite injury-prone, Venus has only retired once during a match (all the way back at the Australian Open in 2011). That same year, Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, which is an immune system disorder. To reduce inflammation in her body, Venus has switched to a raw food, vegan diet. After her diagnosis, Venus continued to fight hard in every tournament, making her way back into the top 20. However, Venus has not won a Grand Slam since 2008 and she has not won a singles title since Kaohsiung in 2016. Despite having infrequent success on tour, Venus, early this February at the Australian Open, managed to reach the second round of a major for the first time since 2019. However, down 1-5 in the first set to Italian Sara Errani, Venus was running for a ball and all of a sudden yelled out in pain after rolling her right ankle. Having already had an injured left knee prior to entering this tournament, Venus was in extreme pain. She continued to fight until the end of the match, eventually losing 1-6, 0-6. While watching Venus fight through pain was hard to watch for many viewers around the world, it was also quite inspiring, witnessing a former number one in the world fight for every single point, no matter what. It demonstrates how much love she has for the game of tennis, playing even though a win seemed impossible. While Williams, James and Brady certainly have followed different career paths, their stories exemplify that it may be time to rethink the typical notion of an athlete’s “prime.”