Cheaters As Heroes

I have blogged before about America’s poor choices when it comes to picking people to call “heroic,” but the situation doesn’t seem to have changed. I would have thought my posts would have done the trick, but apparently not. So we will take another crack at it.

Our choices are especially odd when it comes to our sports heroes, and that’s where most of our heroes can be found — in sweaty locker rooms and beating up their wives. We also indiscriminately refer to every soldier who ever wore camouflage as a “hero,” whether they ever did anything but serve slop in the cafeteria at boot camp. Anyway, the recent case of Pete Rose is worth pondering as he was given a “prolonged” standing ovation in Cincinnati prior to this year’s All Star game.

Rose, of course, played for the Cincinnati Reds for years where he was known as “Charlie Hustle,” and he seemed to be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame until it was revealed that he had gambled on baseball games. He was banned from baseball and could no longer be considered a candidate for the Hall of Fame. He continued for years to insist that he had not gambled on the games in which he played and has appealed his situation in order to once again become eligible for the Hall. Then it was revealed on ESPN, complete with graphic evidence, that he had, indeed, gambled on the games he had played in and was therefore guilty of lying in addition to breaking the rules of the game he claimed to love — and assuredly played very well.

And yet, he was given a standing ovation by the thousands of fans who recently attended the Hall of Fame game in Cincinnati. Puzzling.

And then there’s the case of Tom Brady who allegedly lied about any involvement in the infamous (and seemingly trivial) “deflate gate.” Every professional quarterback interviewed after the scandal insisted that any quarterback would know instantly if the balls he was throwing were over or under-inflated. ESPN even had a retired quarterback throw three balls on camera, one under inflated, one over inflated, and the third properly inflated. He picked out each ball correctly after only one throw. The evidence is overwhelming that Tom Brady knew the balls he was playing with were not regulation. He may not have ordered them to be so, though that seems unlikely, but he insisted he knew nothing about the incident, which is highly improbable. In a process in which Brady refused to cooperate, the NFL ruled against him and suspended him for four games. He is appealing, as is the NFL Player’s Association, and the punishment may well be reduced, perhaps to a fine. But in the eyes of an adoring public he has always been innocent and remains the hero of many a young would-be football hero, even though he almost certainly lied. Puzzling.

And, of course, there is the case of Tiger Woods who is from all reports guilty of repeatedly cheating on this wife and, after an ugly divorce, underwent therapy to try to calm down his racing libido. Yet he remains ever-present on the television and his appearance at a golf tournament immediately increases revenue through attendance and television audiences — despite the fact that, truth be told, he is yesterday’s news. We try these folks in the court of public opinion and we often do not know all the facts. That’s certainly the case. But when the evidence is made public there is little room for doubt and only a strange form of denial can allow us to continue to regard these folks as exemplary, the kind of people we would like our kids to grow up to be. Puzzling.

And yet the court of public opinion can be nasty as well, and perfectly willing to find a man or woman guilty of heinous crimes without the benefit of due process — as in the case of Bill Cosby, who reportedly drugged women and then raped them. But then, Cosby wasn’t an athlete — at least not a professional athlete. And he is probably not even on the radar of the millennialists who weren’t born when he was one of the funniest men around, making millions of dollars on television.  Yet, again, he wasn’t an athlete; perhaps that’s the key. We want our heroes to be famous and rich athletes — even if they are known to be cheaters. Puzzling.

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6 thoughts on “Cheaters As Heroes

  1. I wonder if part of is the nature of sports, especially at the major level. Not just that it sweeps us away emotionally so often, but that it provides several opportunities for comebacks and attempted redemption. The troubled, the cheats, the crooks, keep coming back around. In part because their athletic skills can make them an attractive to teams that need good players, in part because success in even a single game or tournament can feel so redemptive to us as fans, no matter if the athlete goes back to his bad behavior later.

    I think of the left-handed reliever of the 1980s, Steve Howe, who was arrested or turned himself in seven or eight times for serious drug use. Yet, he kept re-signing with team after team, each of them in need of a gifted left-hander out of the bullpen, which he was. He finally died young of the consequences of his longtime drug use. Keith Hernandez, the great first basemen for the Cardinals and Mets, was a central figure in the 1980s baseball cocaine scandal. He distributed the drugs, making him a dealer. He was suspended, but on his first game back in early 1986, Shea Stadium gave him a long, long standing ovation. The Mets went on to win the World Series that year, Hernandez has had a long and successful career as a broadcaster. In short, he could win, so that made it easier to overlook the drug use.

    Current Twins manager Paul Molitor also was involved in that cocaine scandal, to a lesser degree. He fessed up early on, and it rarely comes up any more — in part because he followed almost immediately in 1987 with a long hitting streak that drew positive national attention, and then won a World Series with Toronto in 1993.

    Ain’t that America, as the song goes. Winning makes us forgive and forget pretty easily — from Babe Ruth, a serial womanizer and heavy drinker, to DiMaggio who was a Mafia insider to Mantle who drank himself to death to, yuck, even Adrian Peterson, who Vikings fans hope will make them a winner again.

    Sports seems to offer a clearer view of winners and losers, repeatedly, because of the nature of its seasons and games, so I wonder if that’s also why it’s more prevalent there than for other celebrities. It offers, I guess, more second chances on a regular basis.

    • Great comment, Dana. There may be no redemption for Bill Cosby! How does the non-athlete make a comeback? We do tend to forgive the athletes if they beat their chests and say a few mea culpas in public. And if they go on to be successful at their craft. In that case, it seems to be about US, not them. We forgive them because we want them to make our teams more successful.

      • Rarely, however, there is Karma and the universe says, “Enough.” Tiger Woods is in this camp, who went from a friendly, talented player to a spoiled brat who believed he could mistreat all those around him, such as his wife, his caddy, and his best coach, Butch Harmon. He fired the latter two because they were becoming too famous. Talk about a crazed ego.

        But after all the bad press, going on his 4th or 5th swing coach, and seeing the young tigers on the tour not only not be intimidated, but almost ignoring him. Sadly for him, he will never have the legacy of an Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson, all fierce competitors, and all of a higher level of personal integrity.

  2. Excellent post, and of course you are right. Your commentator, Danayost, has also hit the nail on the head. But then, we as a nation of couch potatoes and video numbed brains have somehow raised sports to a fever pitch, and those talented enough to excel at the games, have made into millionaires. By what rule of logic does someone who can throw, catch, or hit a ball become worth tens of millions of dollars a year? And not only do we set these fools up as idols, we then build them grand stadiums to play in. If we only gave education, or infrastructure, or public goods projects this level of attention, what a great world it would be for everyone.

    But then, that would take a level of intelligence and moral being that we certainly lack.

  3. Great post. You can add Barry Bonds, Jose Conseco, Mark McGwire, etc. who decimated the integrity of baseball during the steroid era.

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