In 1986, baseball appeared in my house: the Boston Red Sox found their way onto my television set during the play-offs and the World Series. I began to appreciate men who could throw hard, men who could hit home runs, and men who had their names in the newspapers every-day. They were talented warriors who valiantly braved white bullets shot through the ball park, defending themselves only with leather gloves and wooden bats. They were individuals, different from any I knew, separated by their fans' reverence and their God-given abilities.
Enlightened to this new world of brawn and publicity, I began to learn more about sports' impact off the field. I remember the baseball cards my classmates had flipped toward the school wall during recess, and I learned that these valuable cards were not children's toys as I had once mistakenly thought. I heard of the off-field escapades of the heroes of so many young people. I became aware of the large sums of money involved in the sport, of the corruption of originally innocent young players, and of the malady called "swollen head" so many seemed to experience.
But there were those worthy of veneration: ones who maintained a sense of humor and respect for humankind. Some endured the frantic excitement of their autograph-seekers, patiently signing and re-signing their names until their devotees were satisfied. Certain men shouldered excessive blame to protect teammates from the harsh criticism of the fans and the media. There were the ones who made regular trips to hospitals, and ones who visited the inner city for straight talk about drugs. Some donated money to worthy charities; some appeared at charity dinners.
It was then that I began to hear about the problem: many children saw these men as role models. Young boys and girls wanted to be just like Roger Clemens, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Policemen were lowered in stature if Roger Clemens allegedly assaulted an officer. It was alright to criticize teammates; it was okay to drink excessively.
The situation was unfair to both parties, I realized. Why should a man, thrust into the public eye simply because of his unusual profession, suddenly be forced into constant righteousness? Athletes are not completely good people, nor are they wholly bad; they are not heroes, nor are they anti-heroes, and it is unfair to force them into such positions.
Why should a child unconditionally emulate a man whom he knows only for an ability to throw a ball ninety miles-per-hour? Part of the maturation of a child should be the discovery of the fallibility of his heroes, and the realization of the distinction between praiseworthy and unacceptable actions. It should be the role of the parents and educators to highlight an athlete's virtues, and with that, to explain the harmful nature of some of this unfortunate celebrity's shortcomings. Rather than forcing angelic behavior on fellow human beings, why not let the next generation judge its own heroes.
A hero, in my mind, is someone like the fictional Mary Poppins who is "practically perfect in every way." Few people can claim that. A true hero is not the person who gains admiration and then loses it once his nature is uncovered. A true hero gains more and more respect as those around him delve further into his character. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.