In 1993, Charles Barkley quite fairly stated “I am not a role model.” He was absolutely right. Yet when I look around the sports landscape eighteen years later, I still see teams and fans trying to beatify players as “good guys” when the term is so subjective and misleading as to be comical. The game itself is beautiful, yet we feel a need to feel closer to the athletes than we probably should, like making judgments about actors as people after seeing some of their movies. Our desire to be closer to the man behind the uniform and our illogical but irrepressible fandom gets in the way. Athletes are still deified because it helps sell jerseys and ad spots, but unless we know the man with at most 3 degrees of personal separation, it is hard to say anything except if he is a good ball player. But perhaps that personal drama and closeness to a player, even if it is a work of fiction, that fans need to elevate sports from a numbers game to action-packed theatre.
As fans our perceptions are shaped more by the affiliations of the player than by the actions he or she takes. I can guarantee that if Hines Ward played for the Ravens this fan base would largely excuse his cheap shots as being “tough” and embrace James Harrison as a victim of media and NFL conspiracies. That is not an indictment of Baltimore, not by a long shot. It is simply a pattern among fans who want to believe beyond anything that their team is full of good, moral guys who play the game the way it is supposed to be played. A few weeks ago I watched a player rear back and punch another player, and on Monday night I watched Brandon Ayanbadejo do the same. The reactions in my heart were entirely different, since one was committed by a player for the other team and the other by “my” team. The hits weren’t exactly the same but for me the loyalty makes the difference between “a cheap shot” and “stupid retaliation for the other guy’s aggression.”
We need to feel close to athletes to know them yet they remain untouchable, a world unto themselves and not always a world they have created themselves. I once attended a forum on Ethics and Sports, and got to talking to some of the football players who had shown up. We got to chatting about the role of the student athlete on campus (Michael Rosenberg was actually one of the panelists… strange, bitter guy) and one of them brought up that they don’t get to know many students outside of their circles. He explained that people will nod and maybe say good game, but no one really tries to engage with them as friends because they are “the football team.” Now I don’t feel sorry for the guys, but perhaps he had a point. We see them on TV and at the game, but they are not “one of us.” Yet we are constantly peering into their lives from afar, validating why they are on our team, how their personal stories make us feel better about them being the guys we root for.
Personal interest stories are compelling and add to the drama of sports in much the same way as a novel isn’t interesting by nature of the actions of its characters but of the “why” and “who” questions that drive the reader to want to discover more. David Freese is now a hero whose two clutch hits gave the Cardinals a shot to win the World Series tonight. His story was great- grew up in Missouri as a St. Louis fan, returned to his hometown team from San Diego. As I saw him round third and throw his batting helmet between his legs in celebration, I thought what a great thing this was for him, he really deserves it. And yet I was taken in by the moment. He could be a total jerk, or he could be the nicest guy on the planet. Objectively, what was important was not the person, but the moment- hitting a walk-off home run in the 11th inning after two late-inning comebacks. But thinking objectively wouldn’t have made me stay up so late on its own. It was who was coming back against who, a question of the cultures of the teams, the attitudes.
Last week the story about Red Sox pitchers drinking on their off days was featured here on BSR, and the expectation was that players need to be accountable for themselves regardless of whether the team itself cares about what they do. I am not going to argue that right now. What got me was that we as fans care so much about the question of who– we ask “What does this action say about whether I like Pitcher X?” The discussion did not hinge on whether the drinking had made them more or less effective as pitchers, but whether they were examples of true professionals- that is, whether they could be role models.
We want so badly for our public figures to be role models, to our children but just as much to ourselves. We make teams we root for into a reflection of ourselves, as I have said so many times in this column. I don’t have children and I still hope that the Ravens, Orioles, Michigan Wolverines, and Maryland Terrapins are filled with the highest caliber individual, and I soak up every article about how Denard Robinson, for all his faults as a player, is a class act. Chances are most of these players who we root for are not role models or “true professionals,” they are paid to do a job and if they are at this level (whatever that level is), chances are they do it pretty well. That should be enough, but it usually isn’t. We identify with them, which lets Steelers fans embrace Hines Ward and vilify Terrell Suggs. As long as we don’t get too sold on them as role models, it helps us keep our passion for our teams alive.