It’s unsustainable because one eventually runs out of numbers to use. Including 0 and 00, one hundred and one numbers are available without resorting to triple digits.
It makes no sense because it kicks the can down this unsustainable path, leaving future generations with the headache (much as my generation has done with most of the real problems it has faced).
It is least dumb in basketball, with its small roster sizes. One could go on retiring a jersey number per year for fifty years without much crowding the available pool of numbers, provided the rule against numbers using integers 6-9 is repealed). It is dumbest in football by far, and especially in college football. Including walk-ons, a college football roster typically tops out around 115 (enough to outfit ten basketball teams, six hockey teams, four or five baseball teams). Take a look at a roster some time. The majority of numbers are used twice, and most teams have to keep a few numbers back without names or assignments, as jerseys to put on a given player in potential number conflict situations.
Most retirement of numbers comes in the heat of an emotional moment: a recent retirement, a death, what have you. I do not look down on collective grief or adulation; I just don’t believe a retired number is the best method. Rings of honor, team halls of fame, anything sustainable: excellent. Retired number? It can’t go on.
In college football, sooner rather than later, it will get to the problematic stage. The pros, with their 53-man rosters, already run into problems because of the prevalence of numbers below 20 (mostly quarterbacks and kicking specialists, until recently) and between 80-89 (mostly tight ends and receivers; nowadays the receivers are taking the teen numbers) that get retired.
When a given team starts to run out of numbers, be it ten years from now or fifty, it will have to begin unretiring them. What then? How will we decide that the kid whose number we retired in a fit of grief over his auto accident, “uh, gee, well, we really need some numbers back, sorry, kid’s family?” At Tennessee football, there are four retired numbers for players who died in World War II. They have since retired three more. At some point, it will get harder to retire more numbers. Are those future kids less deserving than those of yesteryear?
It just has to end. Even if each team maintained just one retired number, there will be a quandary when another loved or mourned great comes along. Do you unretire the old number to retire the new one?
Rings of honor. Halls of fame. Put up a statue. Name something after the player. There are so many better options than taking a number out of the pool. My own pet idea: unretire all jerseys, but for those numbers that were retired, or are in a ring of honor, authorize a name tape to be worn on one shoulder in honor of the recognized past holder. If West Point can wear different units’ shoulder patches on its uniforms, surely we can run to this.
As for retiring them, let’s just stop already, before this gets sillier.