This week’s New York Times Magazine opened with an essay by Elizabeth Nelson about whether we’re missing out on when elite athletes—Roger Federer and Serena Williams in this case—retire from their sports.
This sentence in the first paragraph made me groan: “The ravages of age, culminating with a recent knee surgery, finally persuaded [Federer] to retire.”
This sentence in the second paragraph—“Sportswriters are required to use phrases like ‘ravages of age’ when discussing an athlete in decline”—made me howl. The hell they are! It’s a lazy habit journalists need to break. It’s also bigoted and misleading.
The following sentence did nothing to calm me down: “Truth be told, it’s a bit of a reach when describing Federer’s goodbye. Trim and suave . . . he scarcely gave the appearance of a man facing down senescence—just a man acknowledging the fact he can’t go five sets deep with Novak Djokovic.” Indeed.
Humans lose speed and strength as we move into midlife. This loss is more acute for athletes, whose careers are built on physical capacity. Federer is making this transition with grace and skill, not “facing down senescence.”
We age well by adapting to the way our bodies change over time, not by pretending it’ll never happen to us or by experiencing these changes as betrayal. It’s ageist and ableist to describe them as “ravaging.” Synonyms for “ravaged” include “destroyed,“ “devastated,” and “ruined.” Federer likely has decades of active, meaningful life ahead of him, not to mention countless lucrative opportunities.
Disease ravages. Grief ravages. Fear ravages. These experiences are part of being human, from childhood on. To blame them on aging is to blame them on living.
Language matters. Journalists need to stop relying on offensive, misleading phrases like “ravages of age,” and we need to keep calling them out until they do.