Letting athletes let us down

July 07, 1994|By Frank Deford

Westport, Conn. -- THE SCOLDS and the disillusioned of modern America are once again lamenting the disappearance of the hero in our disenchanted times.

Curiously, although sports troubadours are traditionally the dupes accused of being too quick to romanticize athletes, it is rarely our kind nowadays who carry on about how sports stars are -- in the usual overwrought phrase -- Letting Us Down.

The fact is, people in sports and people who cover sports are much more understanding of bald reality. Athletes are, for the most part, young men footloose and fancy free, possessing great wealth and little responsibility, who have been bootlicked and pushed ahead in line since they were children and are therefore likely to Let Us Down.

Why should we be surprised that our young royalty acts any differently from the spoiled-kid aristocrats at balls in "Madame Bovary," with their "daily satisfied passions . . . in which the muscles are flexed and vanity sated"?

Welcome to the major leagues.

But when forced to confront a case like O.J. Simpson's -- or a much more everyday event like the drug-use suspensions of Dwight Gooden and Diego Maradona -- non-sports journalists have a very hard time telling celebrities from heroes.

For some reason, sport luminaries are draped in a hero's mantle while other equivalent entertainment figures remain merely stars, without moral expectations.

The athletes are built up even more because in our nitpicking society it is so hard for anyone to retain heroic status.

Carlyle's prescient observation that "Democracy means despair of finding any heroes to govern you" has merely been confirmed by the ordination of ersatz ballpark heroes.

All this is complicated further by that cloying term "role model." More accurately, when it comes to athletes we fawn over, it should be "role dream."

All too often, American children cite some celebrity they would choose to be rather than someone worthy they would prefer to be like. And then we get angry at the designated role dream for not living up to false demands.

Athletes can't help it if they are looked up to.

Really, now, what would you think of your own child if he chose Warren Christopher over Ken Griffey Jr. as a role dream?

It should never shock us that kids are most impressed by sports stars and rock singers. And neither should we be upset when O.J. and Doc and Diego and Jennifer and Darryl and Pete go astray in their private lives.

Most often we should take the hint from Muhammad Ali's old tease: "Who knows where I goes/When the door is closed?"

Anyway, children aren't all that fragile when they learn that stars misbehave. Who knows? It may even be good for them to see that famous people are not above the law.

In that sense, Dwight Gooden's 60-day suspension is surely worth scores of canned public-service announcements about Just Saying No.

But -- and here's the rub -- we should be far more concerned with the professional behavior of athletes. It is there, on the field or court, that sports stars do have a real effect upon impressionable kids -- and a lot of dopey adults, too.

It is one thing to be told that so-and-so was caught doing drugs. It is much more devastating for fans to actually see their role dreams mugging each other, insulting each other, carrying on brutally and abusively.

Of course, snorting cocaine is intrinsically a worse offense than trash talking. But each ugly action on the field of play -- repeated in the so-called highlights broadcast -- carries far greater weight than what falsely appointed heroes may do in the privacy of their own conceit.

The woeful search for the peerless may be appropriate, but when it comes to athletes it is enough to hold them to a heroic athletic standard -- on the field, where seeing is believing.

Frank Deford, a Baltimore native, is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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