My son is 23. Thank goodness he isn't ten. Just a year before he turned ten, Mark McGwire had his record-setting season. The year my son turned ten, Lance Armstrong was on his way to winning the Tour de France. Roger Clemens led the pitching staff of a World Series-winning Yankees team. Tiger Woods was on the verge of seven wins in the Majors. If you liked sports as he did, it was a great time to be a kid. How, then, to explain what has happened since?
Sure, sports heroes have always had feet of clay. Not everyone is Lou Gehrig or Jackie Robinson or Gil Hodges. Joe DiMaggio was cheap and nasty. The Mick was a drunk. Orenthal James Simpson is truly in a class by himself. There have always been skirt chasers and cheaters in every sport. But what’s happening now seems unprecedented. If you’re a Penn State alum, do you want to send your son to school in a Penn State sweatshirt? If you're a fan of the Irish, how do you explain the current Manti Te'o controversy? You may have wanted to “Be Like Mike.” But do you want your son to be like Tiger?
I remember many years ago, Charles Barkley did a Nike commercial in which he said, “I am not a role model.” He finished by saying, “Just because I dunk a basketball, doesn't mean I should raise your kids.” I wish it were that easy. No, son -- you shouldn't get excited when your favorite player hits a homer, dunks a basketball, scores a touchdown, has a hat trick, or sinks an impossible putt. You see, the truth is, he abuses women/is a child molester/uses drugs/is an ignorant liar. See if those words come out of your mouth when you've spent a glorious day at the ballpark or the arena. See if you can puncture that innocent adoration. Go ahead. I dare you.
As we approach the Super Bowl, the crowning glory of our sports calendar, I’m reminded of perhaps the greatest Super Bowl commercial of all -- Mean Joe Greene trading a Coke for a jersey. The look on that little boy's face when he says, “Thanks, Mean Joe!” speaks volumes about our sports culture and what we've lost. I don't advocate that journalists go back to the “gentleman's agreement” and hide the bad behavior of “heroes.” And certainly, parents should encourage their children to admire scientists and artists and those who crusade for a better world.
But damn it -- if you’re going to wear a uniform that stands for an entire college or city or region, if you’re going to sign autographs and yes, endorsement contracts, and if you're going to benefit from the fortune that goes with fame -- you might owe something to somebody. Like maybe the marketers who pay you, the consumers who believe you actually like the product -- and most of all, a ten-year-old boy.