|Photo Credit: Neon Tommy|
These instances, of course, are not the first cases of our athletic heroes disappointing us. In recent memory we've also seen legendary figures like Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods and too many MLB players to name have failed to live up to our expectations of them.
With the advent of social media, the public response is swift and strong when these stories come to light. We can easily cast our judgments about our heroes without knowing all the facts and are quick to make light of their perceived failures. Without excusing the lies of those we've placed on pedestals, I do wonder if the expectations we place on our heroes might be asking too much. Do we allow them to be human...or do we literally expect them to be superhuman?
In a article from a few years ago, ESPN.com's Jeff MacGregor wrote of the failure of a couple revered heroes -- baseball player Alex Rodriguez and Olympic legend Michael Phelps. MacGregor writes:
"And this has been our recent trouble with American "heroes," at least the ones arriving still warm off the humming assembly lines of popular culture. The problem lies not in their manufacture, but in our perception of the final product. Once we've been sold their heroic stories by the media and the for-profit institutions in charge of such things, we refuse to see our heroes for what they really are: complex, fallible human beings just like us who rise briefly out of the mire to do something extraordinary, then return to join us in the hog wallow of moral confusion and squalid appetite that is everyday life.
Heroes never were meant to be an accurate reflection of daily human enterprise. They were meant to be examples of the rare capacity to exceed ourselves. Go back to ancient mythology, and you'll see what I mean. The Greeks understood that becoming a hero didn't absolve anyone of being human. In fact, that was usually the point of the story. Cautionary. Many of those "heroes" were lucky to get out of those stories alive. Most traded a single act of glory for a lifetime of punishing regret or a grisly death.
Here in 21st century America, however, we prefer the Candyland version of heroic myth, in which no one is doomed to die or drown or wander forever in a wasteland of pain, but instead sets a record, scores a contract with William Morris, makes a million and marries a swimsuit model, and everything winds up hunky-dory at the end. Nobody has to sleep with his own mother and then claw his eyes out with a brooch."I don't think it's unreasonable to ask our sports heroes to be people of integrity and to be honest with their fans. But we must realize that they are not perfect and that they will fail us. Athletes are no different than any else in regard to their humanity. They may happen to enjoy tremendous athletic success, but they still struggle with the same insecurities, need for acceptance and even the same sins that we all do. It seems to be an American pastime to worship people as they rise...and ridicule them as they fall. How sad.
Although it disappoints me when our heroes fail us, it doesn't surprise me. In a world where style is so often valued over substance and where we expect our heroes to perform superhuman feats, it's not unreasonable to surmise that some will cross ethical lines to achieve what they think we want them to become.
I don't know all the facts about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o. But I do think it's fair to say that some of their behavior is wrong, even though we are not in the position to know their motives and what led them to deceive the public. I, too, struggle with wanting to please others and pretend to be something that I am not so that others will like me more. But as I've gotten older, I've learned that presenting a false self to others is ultimately not fulfilling. Because at some point, our true self will be revealed, the imposter that we've been presenting to others will become unmasked and we will be seen for who we truly are.
I don't think we have to be fake with God since He knows all about us and loves us anyway. The conditional love of fans will never match the unconditional love of God. My prayer is that Lance and Manti would both come to realize the love, forgiveness and acceptance that can be found through an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ. I don't know their personal lives so they may already have a relationship with God. But I hope they would both be able to experience God in such a way that they would be able to live honest and forthright lives in front of others. Although I'm sure they will both have difficult days ahead, my guess is that they will be resting a little easier at night knowing that the darkness they've been living in has now been revealed in the light.
The heart of the Christian message is that we can never be good enough to earn God's favor but through faith in Christ, God accepts us as a new person. We no longer have to pretend to be something we are not. In the words of Pastor Tim Keller, the humble Christian understands that they are "more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope." May this be true of our heroes and of us. Amen.