Athletes as Heroes

I have written about heroes before, suggesting that heroic people are often the most ordinary folks who show exceptional courage in the face of adversity or are simply willing to swim against the tide of popular opinion. I have also mentioned the very few athletes I regard as heroes — not because of their athletic prowess, but because of their humanitarian tendencies, their desire to make the world a better place. I also wrote that I thought America’s hero, Tiger Woods, was yesterday’s news, a man who has had his day and should now disappear into the darkness.

But this has not happened, of course. While Tiger has failed to win a major tournament in years, he has recently won his second PGA event of this year and seems to have his MoJo back. He’s a favorite to win the upcoming U.S. Open. That is good for the golf enthusiasts (and the TV networks) because the man can play golf better than anyone else on the planet when he is “on” his game. But as a human being the man is a mess. And for over a year he has stumbled and lost on the golf course as well. The interesting thing is that through it all American sports enthusiasts never lost their love of the man. Even when he was losing his name appeared with remarkable  regularly on ESPN and when he appeared on the golf course — even when he was playing badly — he received the loudest applause, and the highest TV ratings. It is strange, indeed. Why do we worship great athletes who are flawed human beings? We did it with people like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe in tennis as well. It’s not new. But in Tiger’s case it is extreme, since his popularity didn’t wane even when he was struggling.

The answer comes in the form of a statement in a recent Sports Illustrated article (June 4, 2012). The comment is made by Dan Naulty a baseball player who was very much caught up in the steroid scandal and topped off his steroid use with alcohol abuse. At one point after he had been traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Yankees he was taken to jail following a brawl in a bar which took six bouncers to quell (so strong were the steroids raging through his system). Once the cops found out who he was, he was released by the men who all wanted his autograph. No charges were brought. Naulty tells the story: “I barely graduated high school. . .I probably graduated college with about an eight-grade reading level. And when you play major league baseball, society is at your beck and call. They don’t care if you have character.. .. They don’t care if you ruin your life. They care about performance.”

In a nutshell, I think Naulty got it right. Tiger Woods’ sustained popularity with golf fans is almost certainly attributable to the promise of the return of his old self on the golf course, the brilliant shot-making together with curses, frowns, violent fist-pumps, mutterings at the crowd, and the rest of his ugly performance behavior. But a new Tiger began to emerge along with the skills that seemed to be returning: a Tiger who smiled more often and even stopped and signed autographs. This was apparently the new Tiger: anxious to reward the loyal fans who knew he would be back with all his skills intact. He has learned what side his bread is buttered on.

We don’t ask much of our athlete-heroes: just that they perform at a high level. When the men themselves (it’s seldom the women) screw up we only ask for a brief apology and then it’s back to business as usual. As long as they continue to perform at a high level, or show promise of returning to that level soon (not too long, we have short memories, after all) we will continue to adulate them and keep them on their pedestal, whether they deserve it or not as human beings. That tells us something important about ourselves and our culture: we identify with success and great wealth, not with character.

In Dan Naulty’s case, he turned his life around. After retiring from baseball he went on to get a degree in applied theology (from Oxford University of all places) and is now a minister helping other people work their way around the traps and pitfalls of a seemingly meaningless life. Now that’s true heroism: doing what he can to make the world a better place. But since he no longer performs on the field, he has disappeared from the public eye; his name no longer appears on ESPN’s bottom line. Now that he is admirable we no longer hear about him. There’s irony for you!

3 thoughts on “Athletes as Heroes

  1. Nice post, Hugh. As I was reading this, I was reminded how ironic it is that John McEnroe is a tennis commentator especially when a player is acting just like he did on the court. The other thing I was reminded of was Doc Graham from “Field of Dreams,” when Kevin Costner’s character described not batting in the majors as a tragedy. He said “it would have been a tragedy if I had only been a doctor for five minutes.”

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