Ben Roethlisberger is making controversial headlines again. So is Allen Iverson. The sports page has more scandal than People magazine. But so what? I have never in my life heard a grownup say his role model was an athlete. I've heard people pick Warren Buffett a bunch of times and Mandela, of course. When I ran with a more pretentious crowd, Bob Dylan and Holden Caulfield were once offered up, but never Joe Namath or Magic Johnson. And you know why? Because any adult with a social IQ greater than a 10-year-old knows that athletes are hothouse flowers—worshiped, but isolated, from cradle to grave for their talent with a ball. In an interview with Nerve.com, Steven Ortiz, a sociology professor at Oregon State and the author of several published studies on athletes' bad behavior, explained:
"Spoiled-athlete syndrome begins early in sports socialization. From the time they could be picked out of a lineup because of their exceptional athletic ability, they've been pampered and catered to by coaches, classmates, teammates, family members and partners. As they get older, this becomes a pattern. Because they're spoiled, they feel they aren't accountable for their behaviors off the field. They're so used to people looking the other way."
But our sports-crazed society knew this long before Tiger became a wolf. Despite all the adulation and money they get, few professional athletes get elected to political office and fewer still inspire national holidays or granite monuments. I love the Dallas Cowboys but I wouldn't let them date my friends. A fan's love is intense but ultimately self-serving—we love athletes who win. But we're not loony enough to give them any real power after they retire. Why then do so many columnists waste time complaining that athletes aren't good role models? Who's asking for that?
Sure, kids look up to sports heroes but that's because children can't help but conflate an athlete's behavior on the field with all the hagiography their sponsors offer. When allegations of Woods's cheating first became public, CNN reported that "A golfing phenomenon almost from the cradle, he inspired countless young people with his multicultural background and effortless athleticism. Nike, one of his major sponsors, seized on the theme for a commercial in which children of various ages and races uttered the phrase 'I'm Tiger Woods.' " But only a child would believe that Nike loves Tiger for his multicultural background. Nike loves him because he wins.
If sportswriters really wanted to do their readers a service, they would stop nagging the athletes to live up to childrens' expectations and start encouraging us fans to grow some scruples. Because that's what the big sports sponsors like Nike understand about our love of athletes that the media doesn't—a good image is better than a bad one, but it's talent that sells sneakers. Of course there are exceptions, O.J. Simpson being the most famous. But for the most part, fans will condone the criminal exploits of an athlete as long as he continues to perform on the field. As Stanley Teitelbaum, author of Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols told USA Todayin explaining why Tiger's reputation will heal, "We the fans have created that kind of climate…It's what I call 'hero hunger.' It makes people feel better about themselves if they latch onto a hero who does well." Which means we don't really care when athletes screw up—unless that is, they screw up with the ball in their hands. Remember when all the pundits said fans would never accept Michael Vick back into the NFL after he served time in prison for running a dog-fighting ring? They did. I suspect Tiger will be greeted with open arms (platonic, of course) upon his return to golf despite the world wide web's consensus that's he's a cheating, lying creep with questionable taste in women. Indeed, stories bemoaning his absence (for the good of the game) are already popping up.
This is the kind of thing sportwriters should be chastising us for—I want to be told there wouldn't be so many convicted felons in the NFL if the fans didn't write off all their bad behavior as a cost of winning. We know we're captive to a group of prima donnas who know they can get away with almost murder just because they can hit a 90mph fastball out of the park. Not even diehard groupies confuse an athlete's statistics with the content of his character, but you need to remind us from time to time that such moral relativism isn't a good thing. Please, I'd forgive Tony Romo for mugging my mother if the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, but that doesn't make it right. What if one day we become unable to tell the difference between cosseting divas and suborning felons? And if Ben Roethlisberger has done even 20 percent of what he's been accused of doing, that day has already come.
Sports journalists should make it their mission to show sports fans our part in all this. The average nonfan is appalled by the alleged exploits of athletes like Ben Roethlisberger or Tiger Woods. But aside from Bryant Gumbel and his team over at HBO Sports, you don't hear much from ESPN or Sports Illustrated about the dark side of this national obsession. More of them need to do just as Christopher Hitchens did here at NEWSWEEK when he wrote, in a piece about the Olympics, "Whether it's the exacerbation of national rivalries that you want—as in Africa this year—or the exhibition of the most depressing traits of the human personality (guns in locker rooms, golf clubs wielded in the home, dogs maimed and tortured at stars' homes to make them fight, dope and steroids everywhere), you need only look to the wide world of sports for the most rank and vivid examples." So if we really want to create role models for our kids, why not start with ourselves? Because only children confuse sports stars with humanitarians; the rest of us know better.