[W] e must put an end to self-delusion and judge gifted athletes for what is embedded within them beyond their skills—the selfish entitlement that comes with nonsensical idolatry and seals them in an airtight bubble regardless of their feigned ability to act humble in postgame interviews. Why do we so routinely fall for the “I’m just doing what’s best for my team” line when one eye of the player is trained on the stands looking for the next dolled-up groupie to bed for the night.
Kobe Bryant. Tiger Woods. LeBron James. Marion Jones. Joe Paterno. Lance Armstrong. Oscar Pistorius.
At one time, these and many others were people some might have referred to as “heroes.” They’re viewed as athletic icons who, due to their brilliance, dedication, and passion, rise above their peers and other mere mortals. This may seem true, but as happens in so many cases, human beings are put on a pedestal to eventually and inevitably fall off. And when athletes fall off their pedestals, the drop can be sudden, breathtaking, and epic.
Bryant was accused of raping a hotel worker in Colorado, even though he had a wife and family in Los Angeles.
Woods had affairs with an impressive array of women, all while he had a wife and family in Florida. He sought treatment for sexual addiction, and ended up losing his family, a good portion of his sizable fortune, and his aura of invincibility.
LeBron James broke no laws or moral codes, but he was certainly guilty of surpassing hubris and immodesty. He stretched his “Cleveland or Miami?” dilemma out to ridiculous lengths on “The Decision,” a paean to his self-professed greatness.
Marion Jones lied for years about her use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). When it caught up with her, it cost her time in a federal prison and the loss of her Olympic medals. Jones found God in prison, played a season and a half for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA, and now uses her experience to help others make better choices.
Joe Paterno dropkicked his moral responsibility to protect children under his care when he kept silent about Jerry Sandusky’s ongoing sexual assaults of children. His previously stellar reputation was forever tarnished. His legacy, which should have been about success, championships, and the thousands of young men he impacted, is now about failure and pedophilia.
Lance Armstrong, after steadfastly maintaining his innocence for years, finally admitted to doping and to being a miserable excuse for a human being. The doping cost him his seven Tour de France victories. Being a miserable human being cost him whatever respect anyone had ever felt for him. Armstrong destroyed people with impunity as he endeavored furiously to protect the long-running lie that was his career. Karma might just be the least of his problems, as his former benefactors are lining up to demand the return of the millions they paid him over the years.
Oscar Pistorius is the latest addition to this Hall of Shame, having been arrested and charged with fatally shooting his live-in girlfriend on Valentine’s Day. Ironically, Nike had built an ad campaign (“I am a bullet in the chamber”) around Pistorius in 2011. “Blade Runner,” who kept guns in his bedroom, may have taken his adrenaline addiction and love for guns to an extreme no one could have imagined.
The recurring theme in this list (besides their very public flame-outs), if you haven’t already noticed, is that everyone on it was (or still is) a Nike-endorsed athlete. I suspect it’s anathema to mention this behind the berm, but this sort of thing represents a real challenge for Beaverton’s 800-lb. gorilla. In what was a huge embarrassment to the Kingdome of the Swoosh, the Joe Paterno Child Care Center on the Nike Campus was scrubbed of any and all reminders of Paterno after his failures came to light. Nike’s long and voluble support of Lance Armstrong became unsustainable once he admitted to cheating.
And the list goes on….
Bryant and Woods are back in the fold after being suitably rehabilitated. Pistorius, even if not convicted of murder, is unlikely ever to return to his previous station. Nike, which is normally very image-conscious, has proven to be surprisingly tone deaf when it comes to the transgressions of the athletes and coaches in its stable. In that sense, Phil Knight’s empire has proven to be very much like the rest of humanity in its refusal to recognize the dangers of placing athletes on pedestals.
The problem is our endless mythologizing of the athlete, this notion that they stand for something special beyond the field of play. They don’t, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to make them equal to the image we insist on having for them. It goes back to the Greeks and the idea of sport as some sort of Herculean sacrifice without personal enrichment. The worst and most pernicious propagandist was the early 20th-century sportswriter Grantland Rice, with his endlessly inflated descriptions, such as comparing the backfield of Notre Dame to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1924. Epic writing yes, impressive under deadline, but biblical bullshit.
It would be easy to pile on Nike for enabling the immorality and illegality in its stable of athletes and coaches. That would be too simple, and it misses the point. The truth is that in some cases, the only redeemable quality some on the list may have is their supreme athletic skill and talent. Beyond that, many of them are immature, self-absorbed, and intolerant of anything that doesn’t place them at the center of the universe while fattening their bank account.
There’s nothing that keeps athletes and coaches from being every bit as possessed of human frailty and objectionable behavior as the rest of us. They may be able to jump higher, run faster, hit a golf ball or shoot a basketball more accurately than we mere mortals. That reality aside, they’re pretty much like you and me. They’re subject to the same fears and failings that trip up any other human being…except that they do it on a stage with far more prying eyes (and journalists with laptops) parsing their every move.
Sports are not the domain of superior human beings. It’s merely a playground for those with superior skills, drive, and commitment. We may wish we could be like them, but there’s a price to be paid for living in a world that magnifies every failing and blows every misstep out of proportion.
Our “heroes” may entertain us, and we may thrill to their exploits on SportsCenter, but when the lights are off and the arena empty, they’re just like you and me. They wrestle with emotional and financial problems, endeavor to raise families, and they try to figure out what to do with their lives. Being an athlete or a coach does not immunize those who play those roles against the problems found in the real world. Most manage to adapt and do their best to be productive citizens and good people…just like you and me.
Some never grow up and learn the harsh lesson that rules apply to them every bit as much as it does to “lesser” mortals. Perhaps if we spent less time idolizing those blessed with an overabundance of athletic talent, fewer of those we place on pedestals would believe their press clippings. It would also help if companies like Nike could refrain from turning their athletes into godlike figures in their efforts to sell shoes. Unfortunately, as long as there are billions to be made off the exploits of our sports heroes, we’ll continue to be shocked when one falls off their pedestal.
Jack Cluth is on Twitter. Follow him at @yuppieskum