Hero worship blinded us to real Leonard


April 01, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Another hero has fallen, and that says less about heroes than it does about us -- me and you, the hero-makers and the hero-worshipers.

Ray Leonard was a great fighter, which does not make him a great man or even a good one.

If there's anything shocking about Leonard's story, it is that detailing the shortcomings of an athlete, even a great fighter like Leonard, is considered Page 1 news. He was a boxer, that's all.

He is glib and has a pretty face and once, in his prime, he held lightning in his hands. That makes him -- what?

Not heroic, except in the ring.

Not worthy of emulation, except in the ring.

Not even unusual, except in the ring.

And yet, he became the all-American hero, the reluctant fighter who (we thought, we wanted to believe) was unsullied by the game that is, by its nature, brutal and dehumanizing -- if, God help us, fatally attractive.

Instead, we find out he knocked around his wife. We find out he was vicious outside the ring. We learn that while presenting himself as Mr. Clean, he was using drugs. He would come home, by his testimony, high on something other than life and slap his wife with hands that are legally lethal weapons.

This tells us that Sugar Ray Leonard was a man out of control. There are many things that are forgivable, but wife-beating may not be among them.

So, he was not a good guy. Why did we think he was?

We live, I'm afraid, in a tyranny of celebrity. We buy soft drinks because celebrities tell us to and shoes because celebrities wear them and salad dressing or cereal because a celebrity's face is brandished on the label.

We give audience to an actor who supports a cause, whether it's saving the rain forests or preventing abortions or allowing them. When a congressional committee was holding hearings a few years ago on the problems of small farmers, it invited Jessica Lange to share her insights with the lawmakers because Lange had played a farmer in a movie. Do we believe her views are more relevant than those of someone who actually works a farm? The problem is that too often we do.

Leonard did one good thing in a news conference he called after a Los Angeles Times story that first gave us news of the private Ray Leonard. He said we shouldn't feel sorry for him, and we shouldn't. He said the same thing after losing to Terry Norris. Leonard has had it all. Spend your tears on those who have nothing.

Leonard said: "I can never erase the pain or the scars I have made through my stupidity, my selfishness. All I can do is say I'm sorry, but that is not enough."

It is not enough. It is not nearly enough. In Leonard's news conference, he practiced what the politicians call damage control. He admitted drug use, knowing we can forgive that, especially from someone who acknowledges a problem and says that he has overcome it. But when asked about hitting his wife, Leonard said, without any detail, that it was exaggerated and taken out of context. I wonder how a punch from Ray Leonard can be exaggerated.

This was an effort to cut the legs off the story and, at the same time, to define it in terms we understand -- of an athlete forced to give up his stage prematurely who is looking for a substitute.

But how much should any of that matter to us? If you're a boxing fan, all you need to know is that Leonard was a great fighter, the greatest of his generation. You can be a great fighter and use drugs. You can be a great fighter and hit your wife.

Trust the art and not the artist is how the saying goes. Picasso was almost certainly the greatest artist of the century, but, according to his biographers, he was a monster once he put down the brushes. That doesn't change the nature of his work any more than Leonard's actions change the nature of his or Pete Rose's actions change the number of hits he produced.

What we did was allow Leonard to believe he had license, that there was little with which he could not get away. He was a hero, after all, and a very wealthy man for nothing more than making other men's faces run red with blood. What else should he think? Where should he perceive the limits to be? Why couldn't he slap his wife?

Leonard said he was sorry, and he probably is. But what does that mean? All we ever really knew about Leonard was what he could do with his fists. And that's all we really know about him now.

We can remember the terrible fury of his early fight with Hearns and the drama of the second fight with Duran and the improbability of a dream that was his victory, after the years of layoff, over Hagler.

He was, in boxing terms, pretty and smart, and even when he dumped one old friend after another who had been loyal to him and even when, in the end, everything he did seemed so obviously calculating, we didn't seem to mind because we were so taken with Ray Leonard's talent.

Did he fail us? Or did we just fail ourselves? He wasn't a hero. He wasn't a role model. He was a fighter.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.