It would be fun to hop atop a high horse and laugh at everyone else for putting faith in false sports idols.
But I’ve bought into my share of illusions over the years. In 1998 I wrote about how great the home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa was. And it was great, if you like your baseball to come from a pill bottle or needle.
When Lance Armstrong came to Cedar Rapids in 2007 (for a great cause, to inspire and empower people who have cancer), I wrote about his “willpower.”
“Maybe it takes someone who bicycled up the French Alps faster than anyone else and has never slowed down, an unstoppable hope machine,” I wrote. That prose was just a little overheated, oui?
But the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is investigating the seven-time Tour de France champion. That doesn’t mean Armstrong was guilty of juicing during those Tour triumphs. But you and I sure don’t know if he was or wasn’t.
And I don’t need to dig very far into Gazette archives to find things I wrote about Joe Paterno that followed the party line of calling him a guiding light in American sport.
But, as I should have told myself at least as often as I’ve told others who are quick to canonize coaches or athletes, we seldom really know these people. Few are as noble as they are portrayed. Or as rotten, for that matter.
In my line of work, it’s a lot simpler to promote the heartwarming. It’s very easy to assist in the mythmaking.
That’s because a lot of people like to have their positive feelings of people fortified. I know I do. I sure want to believe those I enjoy and admire are full of integrity. But the only ones I’m very confident about are those I have gotten to know and observe closely.
When you write such things about someone, the responses to the stories obviously are favorable. There is no backlash, no anger, no worries. It feels good to get positive feedback from the public. Real good.
Plus, how dreary would this existence be if we didn’t focus enough on the best in people?
Often, by the way, such portrayals are on the money. Thankfully, many public figures really are chock full o’ integrity and decency. The world has no shortage of people, famous and otherwise, who would hold up magnificently under scrutiny.
But there also is a lot of carefully constructed image-making, by the subjects themselves and those who report it. Image isn’t everything.
Maybe we should remind each other to not turn fellow human beings into deities, to dial down hero-worship of anyone. Someone who really is a good egg probably doesn’t crave the ego-massage, anyhow.
There have to be some people who look back and wonder why they ever vigorously pursued an autograph of a Tiger Woods or Jim Tressel or Pete Rose or Michael Vick. At the time, they surely thought those were heroes without deep flaws. Had anyone suggested otherwise, they might have been branded liars and fools.
A rational person would look at why high-ranking Penn State people were part of a cover-up for a child-rapist and ask why “protecting” a football program could have possibly been that critical to them.
A college football program. A multimillion-dollar institution centered around games played with an oddly shaped ball that can take funny bounces. Guarded by men of great accomplishment, but men who helped keep horrific crimes in the darkness.
It’s incredible, isn’t it? Maybe if we all tweaked the culture just a teeny bit and tried to make these games just a tiny bit less important … hey, it’s fun to pretend.