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The Trouble with Sports Heroes

(This essay was originally written in 2011. I decided to edit and repost it.)

The idea of heroism is one our society often struggles with. When I was nine years old my fourth grade teacher asked our class if we read about any heroes in the local newspaper. I raised my hand and said “Yes, Mookie Wilson almost hit an inside-the-park homerun for the Mets and they won last night.”

As to be expected, my teacher informed me that despite Mookie Wilson’s actions on the baseball field, he was not in fact “a hero”. He then introduced the class to a local firefighter who had saved a young girl from a burning house.

That incident taught me a few things. Most importantly, I learned the importance of leaving a burning house as soon as possible. I also learned using the term “hero” to describe an athlete is not something that should be done lightly. Sports heroism is a slippery, often treacherous concept that should seldom if ever be used.

Over 20 years later, I still see people mixing and matching sports heroes with real-life heroes. And while it’s bad enough for a kid to confuse the accomplishments of a baseball player and a life-saving fireman, for grown-up sportswriters and other media types to do so is a slap in the face to those people who put their lives on the line for the betterment of society.

The dilemma gets even worse when people use war metaphors to describe athletes. Adding soldier, warrior, general, or any other combat or conflict descriptor to sports conversations confuses the cause and in some cases draws more attention to the word choice than to the cause for celebration.

Unfortunately, these tired clichés are used so often many athletes now honestly believe them. They feed their warrior personas by calling themselves a “solider”, saying they would “go to war” with their teammates “in the trenches”, or even portraying military fighters or secret agents in commercials. In generations past, athletes would have never compared themselves to war figures.

Back in the day, before self-aggrandizing became the norm, the only athletes who dared call themselves soldiers were those who actually served in war. One can only imagine what would become of a ballplayer daring to call himself a soldier or a warrior during the days of Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Bob Feller - stars who put their career on hold for the defense of the nation.

Somewhere along the way, and I am not sure exactly when, the hero/warrior/soldier cliché became somewhat accepted. While there is still an unwritten imaginary line mentioned by some writers on occasion and a stink might be raised for a week or two in some cases, by and large, comparing athletics to martial combat is accepted, if not embraced. Although it is still taboo in baseball – perhaps because no one has quite filled the venomous cleats of Ty Cobb – it is par for the course in NFL discussions, and has also made its way to NBA conversations.

In the NBA, the concept of a “warrior” is particularly interesting. Although we often associate warfare with a field (i.e. “the field of battle”), NBA warriors fight for glory on a court, a term normally associated with rule of law, a civil forum where compromise and discussion win the day.  Yet there are those players who have transcended the court and brought to mind the ideals of combat, where victory must be attained at any cost.

But the label of warrior has always been awkward. Was Navy sailor David Robinson a warrior because he was once in the military? What about 7’2 300+ lbs of Shaquille O’Neal? Or does his size automatically preclude him from being tough and determined? Do warriors have to have a pinch of underdog in them? What about the new school athletic prowess of Dwight Howard or Blake Griffin? Are they tough enough to be in the warrior class?

Outside of Allen Iverson, few who play the guard position have been referred to as warriors. Kobe Bryant has never been fully accepted as a warrior, despite playing a soldier in a recent commercial. Guards belong to a different martial class – that of generals, snipers, and long-range bombers whose purpose is to spread the offensive attack. No matter how much players with those labels contribute, they are never held in as high esteem as warriors.

Whereas some guards are described in martial terms, the majority of the NBA is not. Many of these players form the NBA’s statesmen class. They are the players who perform admirably, represent their teams well, work to win, but stay out of the trenches. They don’t cheat, they represent fair play, when the game is over, they’ll extend friendly handshake.

Despite our glorification of NBA warriors and the claims that they engage in some sort of athletic warfare, we are still uncomfortable when the warrior/soldier class tramples on our sense of fair play. We cringed when esteemed warrior Kevin Garnett insulted the medical condition of a fellow player, although we know we would have probably made the same comment if it meant getting ahead in the game.

The fact that Garnett’s psychological attack was questioned, first on twitter, and then all over the media, reflects our glorification of war but our reluctance or fear to experience the trenches.  We want our warriors to act with a certain decorum or level of civility, although we know that’s not what wins wars.

(The exception to this cultural rule is the interesting case of Michael Jordan. Jordan played like a warrior, shot like an assassin, but his aggression was swept under a veneer of corporate-generated statesmanship.  Jordan was able to cover his war-like tendencies with a Gatorade and a smile. His hatred for his opponents wasn’t vilified, rather it was glorified.)

By now we should accept the fact that sports warriors like Kevin Garnett are a lot like legendary general George S. Patton. Even though he was among the gruffest, hard-nosed, driving generals in American history, we like Patton. He was a hero. George C. Scott played him in an award-winning movie. But a majority of us would have hated to be under his command – to have to march sun-up to sundown, to be called a coward when fear strikes, or to face Patton’s classic stern no-nonsense demeanor.

On the field of battle we want fewer statesmen and more conquerors. We don’t study diplomats as often as we do heroes of war. The negotiator and the politician don’t capture the public imagination. Stories are not told of the great peacemakers.

The problem with many wartime generals, like those of sports warriors, is they often have trouble conveying their thoughts to a non-combat audience. Off the field of battle, they are public relations disasters waiting to happen. Take for example the comments by Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in a 2010 Rolling Stone interview.

The list of athletes known for their aggression who have put their foot in their mouth is long and prestigious. In the most high profile cases, Garnett, Kellen Winslow, and John Rocker have all faced judgment for comments that didn’t translate well to the public. That is when we look at them different. We start to see that they aren’t the type of people we want to emulate. They have been so corrupted by their single-focus lives that they do not fit in with the world around them. And if their sin is so egregious that they become disdained, it might never matter again what they do on the field. Our admiration for them will be gone forever.

And they may never be a mistaken for a hero by a nine year old.


This post first appeared on The Serious Tip, please read the originial post: here

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The Trouble with Sports Heroes

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