Sports heroes are often unworthy of the adulation they receive.
In my Sports Reflections columns, I have usually written about some inspiring sports personage or event that has something positive to teach us about life, history and/or society.
I have also, in my writing over the past couple of years, tried to make the point that we sports fans need to guard against giving sports too important a role in our lives. In my opinion, many of the ills in the sports world today can be traced back to the fact that sports fans make sports too significant.
We are far too willing to part with an outrageous portion of our incomes and our attention to the point that it has distorted the values that should be inherent in Sport. Sports have become corrupt in large part because of the money that is pumped into it by us, the adoring fan.
My argument is that we need to keep sports in perspective. Yes, sports figures and events have the capability to elevate and inspire us, but just as often— especially recently— sports “heroes” have been showing themselves to be less than admirable characters. One important reason we should avoid getting too emotionally invested in sports is that many of today’s sports “heroes” are not worthy of the acclaim.
In this column I will recall several persons who once may have been considered sports heroes, but who eventually proved themselves to not be deserving of role model status— thus calling into question the entire process of the place of sports in our imagination. In no particular order:
Lance Armstrong: The seven-time Tour de France bicycling champion was considered the All-American boy. He gave a face to a somewhat less-than-visible sport, and gave the US someone to cheer for in an event that otherwise we would have largely ignored. For years he denied whispered accusations that he was juicing. Then in 2013, on Oprah, he admitted that he had won all of his races while under the influence of performance enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong, you let us down.
Tiger Woods: As John Mathes, the sage of Park Hills, declared the other day, “The ‘Tiger era’ in professional golf is officially over.” Bursting onto the PGA Tour scene in 1996, Woods dominated the sport for over a decade, winning 14 major championships. He was responsible for re-energizing public interest in the sport that had flagged in recent times. He seemed to be on top of the golfing world. Then, in 2010, it all came tumbling down with revelations about Woods’ personal life.
No one is perfect, and the public can be somewhat forgiving of minor peccadilloes— but it was revealed that Woods had a streak of serial infidelities that would make Hugh Hefner blush. The resulting publicity and turmoil took its toll on Tiger’s game. Combined with a string of injuries and a seemingly endless procession of swing tweaks, Woods fall from the apex of the golfing world mirrored his fall from public grace.
No one should look to Tiger as a role model for how to live one’s life, and now one can’t even look to him as a role model for how to play golf. Tiger Woods, you let us down.
OJ Simpson: Once one of pro football’s most famous and heralded players, OJ Simpson has fallen about as hard as it is possible to. Following a career in which he was the first player to rush for 2,000 yards in a 14-game season, Simpson went into broadcasting and acting where he met with some success.
Then, in 1996, he was acquitted of the 1995 murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, despite being convicted in the court of public opinion at least.
In 1997, a civil court agreed with the public that OJ did it, and awarded a judgment against Simpson for $33 million for the wrongful deaths of Ron and Nicole. (For the record, OJ to date hasn’t paid much of the settlement.)
Despite dodging the bullet on the murder charge, OJ just couldn’t keep himself out of trouble. In 2007, he was arrested in Las Vegas and charged with felonies that included kidnapping and armed robbery. He probably figured if he could get away with murder, he could get away with this. He was wrong. Sentenced to the slam for 33 years in 2008, OJ is up for parole in 2017. OJ Simpson, you let us down.
Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa: Prodigious sluggers in Major League Baseball, these three were helpful in getting the fan base back following the fans’ defection after the 1994-95 baseball strike. Sosa and McGwire’s friendly rivalry in pursuit of the home run crown seemed like just the kind of feel-good story that we usually love about sports. Bonds putting up crazy-good career numbers drew attention and interest.
Then we found out they were all juicers. Despite all the denials and lying and foot-dragging, we ultimately discovered they were all benefiting from the use of performance enhancing drugs. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, you let us down.
I could go on. Joe Paterno, Oscar Pistorius, Michael Vick, Ben Johnson… But you get the point. We need to be careful how much adulation we drape upon sports figures, because, all too often, we are going to find out they don’t deserve it.