Picking and choosing our athletic heroes

By Hannah Sparks

Flickr/Keith Allison

Organized sports play a more important role for this generation compared to any prior era. Growing up, not only did sports provide a good way to get out of the house, exercise and make friends, but famous athletes have increasingly taken on heroic proportions. The discipline, teamwork and striving towards excellence that typifies professional sports makes athletic stars easy targets for adoration.

In today’s highly disillusioning world, it is important to have role models, especially as they seem fewer and farther in between. Constant media coverage of all aspects of life, from politics to entertainment, is both a blessing and a curse.

The media makes it possible to ferret out corruption, but it also breeds disillusionment and cynicism. We simply know too much about the seedier side of things, which was largely hidden from public view before.

But, as the barrage of less-than-glowing stories arising out of the sports world in the last few years may show, athletics can be just as corrupt as the United States Congress.

In recent years, we have been guided through detailed accounts of scandals such as the Michael Vick dog fighting fiasco, the Tiger Woods sex scandal and the child molestation scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, just to name a few. The latest bombshell is competitive biker Lance Armstrong’s recent admission, in which he finally confirmed persistent doping rumors.

Stories have ranged from the bizarre, like Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s girlfriend hoax, to various criminal scandals. Whether or not these incidents illustrate some form of behavior based on status is difficult to conclude.
As the stories keep coming on to the radar, fans have to wonder if there is something about the world of sports which leads to this level of misconduct.

It is not controversial for someone to say that megalomania leads to corruption in the government, or that bad celebrity behavior stems from their pampered lives, or that greed in business leads to unethical decisions. These are cultural narratives at this point. But there seems to be an aura of fear around making the link between the hyper-competitive, glorified nature of athletics and whatever misbehavior we see there.

Defensive fans work to remind us that these athletes that so many worship are only human, and a few are bound to mess up. But the problem is, these aren’t your average, unknown athletes who are messing up. These are high-profile heroes taking epic falls from grace.

What could explain the growing trend? The same ideals which led to general cynicism towards celebrities and politicians: money and power.

It’s no secret that some athletes are given outrageously high financial compensation for their work. After a spat with Kevin Garnett earlier this month, Carmelo Anthony was forced to sit out a game, which cost him $176,700 out of his $19.4 million salary, according to the New York Times.

The median annual income for the average American family in 2011 was just over $50,000.

This $176,700 does not include money made from endorsements nor paid appearances, let alone the fact that Anthony is not the highest paid professional athlete.

Not only are the athletes themselves often paid very well, but they generate a lot of money for other people. At the high school level, athletes represent their town: winning teams give the impression that the town is wealthier, has better schools, which possibly attracts new residents and enlarges the tax base.

College athletes make money for their universities by attracting potential students and encouraging large alumni donations. Professional athletes represent their franchises, and their success means the owners and investors in the team are making more money.

According to ESPN, in a new book co-authored by former Red Sox manager Terry Francona and Boston Globe reporter Dan Shaughnessy, Francona says that Red Sox ownership made certain business decisions and trades in order to increase viewership, not to better the team. Not exactly a shining example of sportsmanship.

None of this necessarily reflects badly on individual athletes, but being so image and money conscious can encourage an aggressive desire to succeed and gain recognition by any means possible, such as cheating.

Cyclist Lance Armstrong and baseball players such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are a few among many famous athletes who have fallen from grace due to cheating with steroids.

However, they attained professional athletic status with the help of doping. Their names are the ones we remember, immortalizing them regardless of our intent to take away all the honors they received.

In the worst cases, high-profile athletes may feel a sense of inviolability due to the power their status may grant them.
Last fall two Boston University hockey players were charged with sexual assault, the task force assigned by the university to the case blamed their behavior in part on the university’s “star culture,” where athletes’ high social and partying status can create a sense of entitlement.

In the most extreme cases, other players, fans and ownership look the other way when players screw up, reluctant to tarnish the reputation of the team or the institution they represent. These are of course the outliers, but fan reactions to these athletes, which can remain strongly positive even if they are found guilty, is concerning.

The thing which fans have to realize, and remind themselves is that being an athlete, even an exceptional one, doesn’t preclude one from possibly being a bad person, the same as any other profession or hobby.

Excusing bad behavior and continuing to worship those who have proven unworthy of it does no one any favors. We have to pick and choose our heroes. Fans should not indict all players, or all organizations, but merely to remind fans and cynics alike that things may not be all as they seem in the world of sports.
Hannah Sparks is a Collegian Columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].