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 Once and for All: Athletes Are Not Heroes

If we didn’t try to make a hero out of that guy with those big brown eyes, that broad, boyish smile, those three NBA championship rings, we wouldn’t be so disappointed. Admit it.

Well, I’m here to announce once and for all: Athletes are not heroes. And we must give up this foolish desire to, in the words of one of our science fiction heroes, “make it so.”

Oh, we’ve all heard the gruesome details by now. A nineteen-year-old in Colorado has accused the beloved Kobe Bryant of the Los Angles Lakers of some kind of assault. We presume it’s rape although everybody’s being kinda jumpy about using that word. Apparently, he was taken to the emergency room mere hours after she filed her complaint. What were they doing? Extracting fluids for evidence? Taking dental impressions for bite marks? We don’t know. ESPN only tells us, “The Colorado police are relying on physical evidence.” And the alleged victim is “extremely credible.”

Of course, we can’t be sure if Kobe did something atrocious to that young lady. If the trappings of fame, power, fortune went to that sweet, boyish head of his. But what we do know is this: people are devastated. They complain that another one of their heroes have fallen. They ask, “What will our children learn from this horrible episode?” Well, I say, “If we didn’t put the guy up on such a high pedestal, we wouldn’t be in this mess in a first place.”

Althletes are athletes and that’s all they are. They are not now nor have they ever been heroes. If you want a hero, look in Iraq or Afghanistan or at your local church or charitable organization. Do not look in Staples Center or Dodger Stadium or Edison Field.

Think about the supposed sports heroes from the past. Babe Ruth? We now know he was an alcoholic womanizer. Joe DiMaggio? Biographer Spoto has suggested he was physically and emotionally abusive to Marilyn Monroe. Mickey Mantle? I think you get my point. Athletes have never been heroes. They’re people who play a sport better than most of us. That’s all.

Why this tendency to idolize them? Most people see sports as a kind of morality play, a metaphor for life. A man faces obstacles and struggles to overcome them, the great man does. He wins! We have elided the heroes from our myths, legends, stories, and lived experiences like war with these players on a stage, whether that stage be a basketball court, a hockey rink, a football field, or a baseball diamond. (Oh gosh, did I forget soccer?)

Some of our athletes may do heroic things…especially off the field with their charitable work, for example. But that does not necessarily make them heroes. And they certainly aren’t heroes just by virtue of being athletes.

I suggest we take a more conservative approach. Instead of naming men heroes, simply because they play a sport better than most, let’s only label those men heroes who do truly heroic things like bring Jessica Lynch out of a Hussein hospital, shall we?

If we do this simple thing, we do not have to become so overwrought when someone does something decidedly unheroic, and we don’t have to worry about the bad example they’re setting for our kids.

They’re not fallen heroes, they’re professional athletes who have done something bad to another human being. Let’s send our prayers out to the victim, insist that they endure the same legal process as any other citizen, and get our beer and pretzels ready for the next game.

July 2003

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