With confessions, accusations and hoaxes, sports figures have been under fire and in the news the past two weeks. We saw Lance Armstrong tearfully confess to Oprah that the toughest thing he has done is tell his three children that he lied. The ongoing controversy over allowing Pete Rose to be eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame after years of betting on and against his own team cropped up again with the recent non-selection of any inductees. Of the four eligible candidates, three lived under the cloud of beefing up their accomplishments by using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). A Russian soccer team’s fans petitioned the owners to "cleanse" the team of homosexuals and players of color. We’ve seen any number of football players accused this season of crimes running the gamut from theft to sexual assault to murder. Manti Te’o, a Notre Dame football player who finished runner up for the Heisman Trophy, was either duped into believing his internet girl friend was real or willingly went along with the deception to boost his emotional stock in the Heisman voting — or perhaps a combination of both.
On ESPN’s SportsCenter, I saw a sidebar that asked the question, "Players: Heroes or Not?" The question struck me as interesting. We often call sports figures "heroes" because of their accomplishments on the field. Their feats of athleticism tickle our fancy with dreams of either achieving the same level of skill or having our own children follow in their footsteps. Merchandising of player jerseys, bobble heads, signed memorabilia and equipment heighten the hype for us all. We want to worship people we see achieving exalted goals because we sit in awe of what they can do that we normal humans can’t. In particular, our children, with some encouragement from us adults, select players that they place on pedestals. When my son Robbie was 4 until he was 6, he loved Edgar Bennett, a Packers running back. Edgar, an African-American, would change his haircut monthly and Robbie, who is also African-American, would follow suit wanting to copy Bennett’s style. I learned to get pretty skilled with the clippers! If you asked Robbie, he would quickly answer that Bennett was definitely a hero.
What truly defines a hero? New York Times sportswriter William C. Rhoden wrote an article on Oct. 12, 2012 titled "Seeing Through the Illusion of the Sports Hero.
" Rhoden looks at four manifestations of heroism: emotional, propaganda, hypocrisy and tragedy. In the article, he eloquently talks about Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, who pre-date most of us in their accomplishments but were already seen as great heroes for the African-American community. Yet, each man also had great flaws. Joe Louis battled addiction and Jesse Owens became, as one writer called him, a trained seal, who put on exhibitions in baseball parks competing against players in odd competitions. We want to believe that because sport figures have exceptional athletic prowess they also possess exceptional virtue. Therefore, we are disappointed time and time again. Players cheat on their spouses, use drugs, commit crimes, lie, expound racist and sexist viewpoints and drive drunk. They perform their chosen athletic skills at an exceptional level, but off the field they may perform their lives at a subpar moral level.
Even real heroes, men and women who carry out extraordinary acts of valor, can be flawed human beings. We need to separate the "hero" from the "person." In fact, we need to start talking about acts of heroism rather than heroes. We can praise the accomplishment without elevating the achiever to the mythic level of hero. When Brett Favre left the Packers he had been a bona fide hero in Wisconsin and across the nation. After all, his wife had battled breast cancer, his father died the day before a big Monday Night game and 10 months later his brother was killed in an ATV accident. Even his addiction to pain killers and alcohol was framed in the propaganda of him just trying to be pain free long enough to create Packer wins. Poor Aaron Rodgers was seen as a weak substitute for the hero role. Then Favre started talking trash about the Packers and taking photos below the waist and his stock fell as Rodgers’ stock rose. Luckily, kids can be pretty fickle and switch allegiances as frequently as a particular jersey comes into vogue. But we should worry about how they react when someone they considered a hero falls from grace.
Certainly, finding sports stars to emulate helps young players develop a passion for their sport and establish goals for their development. But we need to teach them that they should focus their adoration narrowly on the player’s athletic accomplishments and not confuse him or her with Superman or Wonder Woman. While we can hope that superstar athletes recognize their responsibility to their young fans to conduct themselves morally and ethically off the field, in this day and age of camera phones, security cameras, Twitter and Facebook, any of us, and especially those in the public forum, can be caught with our metaphorical pants down. So it does get harder and harder to be the perfect role model that we expect from superior athletes. Then there are those who fly in the face of decorum with vulgar language and actions without regard to any moral compass. Someone like Ty Cobb survived as a "sports hero" because there wasn’t instant press. Reporters kept his boorish behavior on the quiet in order to promote the party line of Cobb as a great baseball hero. As long as his stats sold papers, no one was going to tarnish that image with the truth about his racial intolerance, violence and child abuse. Today, it’s exactly those later attributes that sell magazines and garner TV ratings.
In fact, one might argue that the press creates sports heroes because their fall from grace has more punch than their actual on-field achievements. We ate up every tantalizing detail of Tiger Woods exploits and fall from grace for months, and even today he is a huge draw on the golf circuit because we cling to the story of him overcoming the adversity of his past to return to his days of glory — just as the mythic heroes of yore. Unfortunately, this very open reporting gives our kids instant access to the most salacious and terrifying details of players’ transgressions. Therefore, we parents need to have an honest discussion with our children about what constitutes a hero. We can pay tribute to on-field accomplishments while cautioning against making a player a life role model. We can also encourage our children to recognize what they would do faced with the same temptations and choices in their lives.
Ironically, the very thing that creates a sports hero may be the very thing that makes them a flawed human — PEDs. Would Lance Armstrong have won seven Tour de France titles without the boost he got from PEDs? Would Barry Bonds have surpassed Hank Aaron’s home run record without PEDs? Would Roger Clemens have been able to pitch as long and effectively as he did absent his PEDs? These kinds of conundrums set up the real discussion we need to have. Can we tolerate some level of "cheating" in order to see sports’ statistics soar? We don’t allow corked bats, we check soccer balls for the proper inflation, we outlaw helmet to helmet hits, we even have limits on hockey fights, so why can’t we expect that players achieve on the basis of their God-given skills and body strength? So long as players have at their disposal enhancement and short-cut methods to success, they will take them because they also buy into the concept of heroism — and they want to be those heroes. Do heroes possess ego? I would say they do in the world of sports. Real heroes perform selflessly without regard to any post-event adulation or gain. We should let our kids know that there are heroes around us every day who don’t have mega-million dollar contracts and the opportunity to tearfully confess transgressions nationally to Oprah. Those are the heroes we need to recognize and emulate, but for their acts of heroism rather than expecting them to be heroes in every moment of their lives.