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The Death of the Athlete as Hero

The idea of the professional athlete as hero and role model took a fatal wound last week. Here's why that might be a good thing.

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Mark Kolbe

Today we're going to spend a minute commemorating a sports phenomenon that's been on life support for decades but likely keeled over for good this week with the recent revelation of Ray Rice's and Adrian Peterson's abuse allegations, plus Danny Ferry's ill-advised statements, plus Greg Oden's domestic violence charge and alleged alcohol problems. The phenomenon in question: celebrating athletes as heroes.

Abuse of women, children, alcohol, drugs, power, and a host of other things has gone on since time immemorial, both within the world of professional sports and without. Once upon a time when we knew less about athletes, society, and each other we were free to ignore that fact. We had plenty of incentive to do just that.

As much as we'd like to bury it in a sea of analysis, statistics, and corporate culture, living vicariously through athletes is an integral part of the sports experience. We can't run, soar, and vanquish our enemies so we do it alongside them. We create rivalries, erect obstacles, tell stories of good versus evil lived out between clearly defined boundary lines. The table set, we gather 'round. As the feast commences songs of victory or tragedy unite us. The competitors hold center stage through it all, first visually and then in our hearts.

As a kid my room was replete with basketball-oriented hero material. I had a couple old Harlem Globetrotters comic books in which the dazzling dribblers fought strange and foul monsters with their roundball tricks. I inked in my Portland Trail Blazers coloring book right alongside the more popular Superman and Batman versions.

Who could ever forget Michael Jordan and company saving the world (or somebody's world, anyway) in Space Jam? We still can't shake the mental residue of the snappy Gatorade jingle that expressed our collective dream to be "Like Mike". As a Blazer fan I took umbrage and changed the words to "Like Clyde" but the intent was the same. We didn't question. This wasn't a fad or a trend. This was the way it was. From Joe Namath making Bobby's eyes starry on the Brady Bunch to Hulk Hogan encouraging his maniacs to take their vitamins and say their prayers, sports figures epitomized the cultural dream...our modern-day versions of Hercules, Theseus, Jason.

The equivalence between athletes and heroes was so ingrained in our consciousness that a 1993 Nike ad featuring Charles Barkley disavowing his status as a role model caused widespread outcry:

20 years on the irony in the spot is apparent. Lines like, "Paid to wreak havoc on the court", shots of Barkley's chiseled physique in motion, and the half-nanosecond spent on who actually should be role models make clear the commercial's intent: not to eliminate heroes but to create a different kind. The choice wasn't "influential or not", rather, "Which guy do you want to buy your shoes from?" Purporting to stamp out the phenomenon, Nike helped recast it for a new generation.

If we still had that luxury in 2014 no doubt we'd be pursuing it. As last week's events made clear, we don't. The problem isn't a decay in the moral fiber of sports figures. We experience athletes constantly in ways that once would have been held from our vision. Twitter and TMZ have become as much a part of the sports landscape as ESPN and your local paper. Lex Luthor wasted his time with death ray satellites and kryptonite. The surest way to destroy any superhero is live Tweeting their every move. Nobody among us could come through that scrutiny unscathed.

Let's be clear: constant coverage has drawbacks but knowing when someone is abusing a partner or child is not among them. We dare not mourn the days when an athlete could swing at a fastball to rousing cheers by day and swing at his wife and kids in a fog of silence by night. That would be selfish, tantamount to saying, "My vicarious leisure-time enjoyment is more important than your entire existence."

But mourning or not, something has departed from our sports environment and it's time to admit it. Charles Barkley couldn't say it without seeming coy or self-serving, like he was abandoning his responsibility. No athlete could. The admission can't come from that side of the fence. It has to come from us. We, the fans, need to utter the words to make them real.

You are not a role model. And you are not a hero simply by virtue of playing professional sports.

We are free to admire what world-class athletes do. We only dream that we could run that fast, jump that high, exhibit that level of skill. We're free to honor the sacrifices they've made to get where they are. We must acknowledge their right to make the best living they can in pursuit of their goals. We're free to cheer as they entertain us and to put heart and passion behind the team, country, or sport they represent. We can also feel justified asking that their behavior and choices not eclipse the sport and its fans. We can feel equally justified asking that their reward be diminished if they do. It's reasonable to ask these things of any human being in this kind of position.

But athletes don't get to be heroes any more than we do. They are human beings with capacity to do good or harm with their gifts, with access to certain avenues through which to do so, and with the responsibility to make their choices accordingly. Their influence is distinct, greater than the norm in some ways, but it's not unique.

When they're at home with their partner or kids or out on the street with the rest of us, they're not a deity. They're not infallible. They're dad or sweetheart or "that cool guy". By the time they hit their mid-40's that's all they're going to be.

Despite the hum of our celebrity culture, being good at one thing does not make you good at everything...or even make you good, period. Athletes have to earn that designation, day by day, the same way the rest of us do. Some of them will live up to that and will be celebrated for it despite whatever faults they have. Some of them will not. That's the way of the world.

An act performed by a millionaire athlete cannot be duplicated by an 8-year-old kid. Unless your name actually is Michael, the dream shouldn't twist into, "Be Like Mike". The point is to be like Bobby and like mom and like the kind grocer down the praise and emulate people for the goodness they create in the spaces between them, not to praise them just because they wear a certain uniform and throw a ball hard.

As we've discovered in this information-laden age, the problem with "Be Like [Athlete]" is that eventually, when you dig deep enough, you're going to find parts of the athlete that shouldn't be followed. This could range from occasional unpleasantness while signing autographs to following an unsustainable lifestyle to the horrible revelations we've experienced in the last couple weeks. Once these things come out, we have a choice.

1. We can minimize the severity of the offense to keep the illusion of heroism intact. "Well the video only showed one incident and she appeared to hit him first and she married him, after all..."

2. We can tear down the offender and any perceived accomplices from their pedestals as quickly as possible to prevent their failings from tarnishing other heroes we wish to keep aloft. "Six lifetime bans for the guy and fire the commissioner too! That'll solve it! Now let's get on with playing games!" (These may be appropriate responses but they don't address, let alone solve, any larger issue.)

3. We can realize that nostalgia and sentiment aren't as important as real people and real crises, put to rest the notion of athlete as superhero, expect our athletes to be everything they're supposed to be and nothing they're not, and act accordingly. This includes admitting that problems embodied by our public sports figures are not limited to their circle but plague our society as a whole. It includes rejecting easy answers, taking those issues seriously, and working to understand and resolve them in our own lives and communities. It includes valuing victims just as much as we value athletes, seeing both of them as fully human, neither above (because of our desire for vicarious elevation) nor below (for inconveniently getting in the way of that desire).

When we take that third option we find we have less need for propped up heroes because we become the heroes we once beheld. At that point we can enjoy our sports figures without the constant grind of the cultural machinery lifting them up to impossible heights only to tear them down. This should be a relief to us and to the athletes at risk of being ground up and forgotten by the system.

The phenomenon of athlete as hero/role-model is dead. That's a good thing. Once we stop misplacing that energy and adulation in our vicarious world we're going to find a lot more heroes in the real one, some in the world of professional sports and some beyond it.

--Dave / @DaveDeckard