Not even Oprah can take the ugly out of a scene like this.
Right about now is when the emails and phone calls start coming to my desk. Why does the newspaper insist on making such big heroes out of famous sports figures? Would it kill you to write about the biochemistry professor who made an important medical discovery just across campus from the sold-out football stadium? There’s your headline.
It’s been 20 years since Charles Barkley made his point on this subject, saying in a Nike commercial “I am not a role model. I’m not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models.”
There’s no use in disputing either of those views, for the simple reason that they are views unbased in reality and unsupported by human nature.
Honor is naturally ascribed to those who achieve great things, from the days of chariot races to these days of tomahawk dunks. If some athlete proves personally unworthy of that honor, we will dig through a pile of refuse to find another hero, and when that doesn’t work out, we will dig through another.
It’s the common urge to set goals beyond the ordinary, and the need to believe that someone before us actually possessed the skill and the stamina to go as far as we hope to go. The world of sports is littered with people like this. Not a perfect world, of course, but then neither are the realms of politics and entertainment perfect, and all three components are devoured daily in portions greater than any scientific journal or sociology study or calendar of the arts ever will be.
So Lance comes off like a creep, and Manti Te’o like a meathead, and the late Joe Paterno like a worn-out cog at the heart of a shockingly dangerous machine.
The easiest thing to do, the laziest thing to do, is to declare oneself finished with the elevation of sports figures. Better, that argument goes, to line the sports page with box scores only and let readers worship the raw numbers rather than the rawer athletes who produce them.
Won’t work. The better players, the better coaches, will always have the biggest platforms. What they do with that is up to them, and what we do with it will never change for a variety of reasons.
For openers, there are so many skunky sports names on the police blotter every day that the good guys are given the responsibility for raising the bar whether they like it or not. Parents and youth coaches point to the ones with clean records and gleaming smiles and winning personalities as role models who may be trusted when all others are smeared.
When someone like that slips, it makes far more of a dent than all the other disappointments. Makes them more reviled, even, than those who have done worse.
Another certainty is the sad fact that many kids lack a parent who is willing and able to show them right from wrong. If there’s a sports figure telling them, at the very least, to stay in school and work hard, that can be significant, and it’s a message worth hearing. The alternative is sending each boy and girl home with a glossy poster of their principal, but my guess is those posters would wind up somewhere other than the wall at home.
When a sports champion turns out to be a chump, then, just tell the truth, to yourself and to the kids. No man or woman is without flaw, no matter the size of their trophy collection. No sports event is bigger than life. No athlete can succeed at the highest level without a ton of support from family and coaches and teammates, and disappointing them would be a terrible loss in a lifetime of winning.
Maybe that’s not enough to close every fresh wound, but it should be enough to power past Lance and every sports scandal to come without descending entirely into a world without heroes. If you think this is bad, try that.