Teams shouldn’t retire jerseys if they don’t intend to keep them retired

Sports teams have a habit of honoring great players by retiring their numbers. Apparently, for some teams, retirement means the same that it did for Brett Favre.

The Cardinals have become the latest team to unretire a number, putting Marshall Goldberg’s number back in circulation for use by J.J. Watt. Setting aside the question of whether Goldberg’s family should have offered or Watt should have accepted, the team retired the number. The team should have said the number will remain retired.

What’s the point of retiring numbers if they’re retired with a vague asterisk that maybe, someday, some great player who has worn that number for his entire career with another team will arrive via free agency or trade? Retirement of a number is (or at least should be) permanent.

If the Cardinals will unretire No. 99 for Watt, they’ll potentially unretire any other number if it suits their interests, from Larry Wilson’s 8 to Pat Tillman’s 40 to Stan Mauldin’s 77 to J.V. Cain’s 88 to Larry Fitzgerald‘s inevitably retired 11.

This isn’t some anti-Cardinals take, even if Cardinals fans will say otherwise. I didn’t like it when the Broncos unretired Frank Tripucka’s No. 18 for Peyton Manning or when the Seahawks unretired Steve Largent’s No. 80 for Jerry Rice. (Largent didn’t like it, either, but he knew he’d look “small” if he said no.)

Here’s another interesting wrinkle. Watt told reporters on Tuesday that he didn’t know No. 99 had been retired until after he signed with the Cardinals. It’s fair to wonder whether the Cardinals didn’t tell him that No. 99 wasn’t available until after the ink was dry on his contract.

Then again, it ultimately was available. It shouldn’t have been. This isn’t a knock on Goldberg’s family or Watt. The team has ultimate control over its numbers. The team is at fault here for failing to honor its word to Goldberg.

Bottom line? Teams like the Raiders and Cowboys have it right. Neither team has officially retired any numbers. That’s the way it should be, because if the NFL (and the world) survives long enough, fans and media won’t know much about the men for whom numbers supposedly were set aside for good.

Eventually, most if not all teams will unretire one or more numbers. So why even do it? Just put the player in the ring of honor, set the number aside for a generation or two, and then let it be worn again by someone else.